Documentarian shows what huge campaign contributions are doing to democracy

Sep 26, 2013

Credit DonkeyHotey / Flickr

  Money is speech. That is what the Supreme Court decided in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which upheld limits on campaign contributions.

But, when the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Citizen’s United, effectively eliminated campaign contribution limits, free speech advocates said citizen speech is taking a backseat to corporate speech.

Each election season, candidates break records by spending more and more money according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As the stakes get higher, huge campaign contributions may be silencing alternative opinions.

In her new documentary, Citizen Koch, director Tia Lessin suggests that huge campaign contributions leave U.S. citizens with a beggar’s choice between what large companies, and what rich people, want them to hear. The film screens in October at the Citizen Jane Film Festival.

“Wisconsin was one of those states which after the Citizen’s United decision, lifted its ban on corporate contributions, and really unleashed an incredible amount of political spending, mostly to pay for broadcast ads on Television and Radio, which I think are largely responsible for this, for the campaign arms race,” Lessin said in a recent discussion on KBIA’s Intersection. Walker’s race was largely funded by corporations and rich conservatives from out of state, such as billionaires Charles and David Koch.

“Money in politics is a lot like water, it will find a way,” MU Law professor Richard Reuben said. “And what the Citizen’s United case did is it made it a lot easier. There were a lot fewer hoops to jump through. And it also created the potential for much larger aggregations of campaign resources.”

The larger aggregation of campaign resources means it takes way more money to have your voice heard. Lessin experienced this in a different way when the funding for her film was pulled.

She said Buddy Roemer, a Former US Republican Representative from La., found out the importance of money in politics first hand when he ran for President in 2012.

“He was fascinating to us because he was on this quixotic quest to limit his campaign monies to small dollar donations, I think it was $100 donations, and he was trying his best to compete with the rest of them that were getting these millions and tens of millions,” Lessin said. “He had the political chops to be a contender, he was charming. He was funny. But ultimately he was outspent and he was drowned out by his opponents.”

As Lessin depicts in her film, Roemer had trouble even making it into debates, because he hadn’t raised enough money to be considered a contender. In May 2012, Roemer finally gave up on his presidential run. “The special interests give the money and they get a stacked deck in return,” Roemer posted on his website. “And what do we get? We get gridlock, corruption, a do-nothing Washington, and a congress almost certain to be re-elected year after year. Although there is a cry for action on many critical issues, we have to start with the issue that deals with the control of the system: campaign finance reform. If we are to become a practicing republic again, we must break from the addiction to special interest money.”

Lessin argues that huge campaign contributions are drowning out dissenting opinions, taking away the public’s chance at making informed decisions and truly choosing the best candidate. Without the true freedom to hear different opinions and make a choice, the United States is no longer a practicing republic, according to Reuben.

“I’m not exactly sure what we’ve got, but it’s not democracy,” Reuben said. “So I think it’s really important… for people to educate themselves and to insist that media outlets like this give time to alternative voices. The problem is that with the monetary spigots open, it’s very difficult for those who have alternative views to be able to fund their presentation.”

Lessin and Reuben spoke with KBIA on Intersection earlier this week. Watch the whole show or listen here.