With close races for both the presidency and the U.S. Senate, Wisconsin has had a ringside seat to the resulting devastation to democracy.
The 2010 Citizens United decision was summed up by an elitist remark Republican Mitt Romney tossed at a heckler: “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Even though no one ever considers inviting any corporations to Thanksgiving dinner, five Supreme Court justices think wealthy, profit-motivated enterprises should have free speech to dominate every political argument.
In the first presidential election since that decision, the unbelievable spending of a billion dollars by each presidential campaign was supplemented by an additional billion dollars from Super PACs funded by corporations and a few billionaires overwhelmingly backing Romney and Republican candidates such as Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity, about 70% of those enormous outside expenditures went to right-wing candidates.
In his Wisconsin Senate race against Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Thompson benefited from many millions in outside spending from six groups.
Three were controlled by the most notorious Princes of Darkness in American politics—Karl Rove with his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS and David and Charles Koch with their Americans for Prosperity (for the Koch brothers).
Baldwin came close to matching that with her own outside groups. But hers weren’t nearly as chilling, unless there are still men terrified of women gaining political rights with support from Emily’s List.
Another major effect of Citizens United we witnessed firsthand was that almost all ads funded by outside groups were not just negative, but viciously so.
Of at least $45.7 million in outside spending on the Wisconsin Senate race, the vast majority was spent to attack the other candidate.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. First of all, there are stark differences between the two parties about whether the wealthy should pay higher tax rates than the middle class and whether needed social programs such as Social Security and Medicare should continue in their present forms. Those differences need to be made clear to give voters a choice.
Also, when candidates themselves are caught on tape denigrating half of the American people or threatening to do away with government programs benefiting everyone, voters should be aware of it.
No one wants insincere campaigns of hearts and flowers that obscure the real differences between the candidates. And there were plenty of real differences between Baldwin and Thompson that voters deserved to know.
That was especially true as Thompson moved to the extreme right with his party and Baldwin continued to stand unapologetically with Wisconsin’s pre-Scott Walker progressive movement.
But there was something really depressing and unsettling about the tsunami of shadowy, creepy television images dominating every channel that twisted political leaders on both sides into screeching harpies or decrepit gnomes.
It’s the sort of thing that drives decent, thoughtful people away from all politics. And that plays directly into the hands of organized right-wing efforts across the country to reduce voting by everyone except for the most mean-spirited, hateful voters on the right.
Who could have imagined that in the 21st century elections could actually turn on ignorant superstitions about rape or conspiracy theories about a lifelong plot to elect a non-white, non-citizen to the presidency?
Or that a candidate would dare pretend his opponent didn’t really care about the victims of the unforgettable tragedy on 9/11 that hit and hurt every one of us.
The explanation from political operatives, of course, is that we have a glut of distasteful, dishonest political advertising because it works. The only way we can change it is to stop rewarding it.
When we were growing up, we heard stories of parents who would catch their children smoking and force them to smoke a carton of cigarettes without stopping. The idea was to make their children so physically ill they would be sickened and repelled by smoking for the rest of their lives.
So are we sickened enough yet by what Citizens United has wrought?
The Supreme Court opened a money gusher to wash away in a deluge every effort by ordinary Americans to reform campaign spending and control their own elections.
By equating enormous political contributions with free speech, the court guaranteed those with the most money would have the loudest voices to try to drown out the free speech of all the rest of us.
The voices of all those citizens discounted have to keep demanding reforms to prevent the first billion dollars in unlimited contributions from growing inexorably into the monster that destroys democracy.