By Bill McCabe

When a lie is repeated often enough, people will begin to believe it. And, as Mark Twain observed, the bigger the lie, the easier it is to get away with it. Combine the power of money and the willingness to distort, and the result is a threat to democracy. Recent political campaigns sadly speak truth to the power of distortion to win in American politics.

Until last January, Americans could expect some degree of honesty in elections due to the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Law, which placed reasonable limits on donations from corporations, unions, and political action groups while requiring disclosure of contributors. Then in January of 2010 in a 5-4 decision called “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court threw out most of the teeth in the McCain-Feingold Law by declaring corporations to be “legal persons” having the rights to spend money without limits and without having to declare the identity of the donators. Individual donators are, strangely, still limited to a maximum contribution of $4,800 and must be identified!

Ironically, one of the most significant victims of the million dollar anonymous political assault campaigns was Senator Russ Feingold himself. Millions were spent by organizations funded by anonymous donors, theoretically unconnected with Feingold’s opponent but out to defeat the co-author of the best federal legislation so far to attempt to bring more truth to politics by limiting the soft money contributions of corporations, unions, special interest groups, and PAC’s – and requiring disclosure of donors. Unlike his ex-co-author of the legislation, Senator McCain, Senator Feingold remained true to the letter and spirit of McCain/Feingold and refused to accept any large organizational donations to counter his opponent.

While distortions and false claims have always been unfortunate parts of American political campaigns, the massive amount of cash behind political advertising is most disturbing. Candidates in last week’s elections spent over $4 billion on their campaigns, coming close to the costs of the 2008 presidential campaign year. Three self-financed candidates for the governorships in California, Florida, and Connecticut spent $250,000,000 on their campaigns; that’s a quarter billion dollars spent by just three candidates. The candidate in Florida won, while the other two lost.

Locally, millions of dollars of anonymous corporate donations were funneled into attack ads and mailings against incumbent Congressmen Hall, Hinchey, and Murphy; Hinchey was re-elected, but Hall and Murphy went down to defeat. One “non-profit” organization called “Revere America,” chaired by ex-Governor Pataki, spent nearly $1 million in anonymous donations to defeat Congressman Hall with negative attack ads because of Hall’s support for health insurance reforms. Organizational donors to
Hall’s campaign have declared their donors.

Vast amounts of money do not always insure success on Election Day, but the amounts of money combined with the distorted ads funded by anonymous corporate contributions introduces a real threat to the democratic process of American elections. The amount of money, whether secret or open, needed to run a campaign give inordinate influence to wealthy individuals, unions, corporations, and anonymous political advocacy groups. But when the power of that money is used to spread lies or distortions, then we have a profound threat to justice, for the repeated lie becomes believable to some.

What is desperately needed in our country to deflect the power of big money is a public financing system for Congressional elections that would give additional funds to those candidates who accept only small contributions. More immediately, when Congress re-convenes later this month, its first order of business should be to pass the “Disclosure Act” to require large contributors to come out of their cloaks of secrecy and reveal their identities – just as you or I must do in New York State if we make a contribution of $100 or more to a political candidate. That which applies to us as individuals should, in justice, also apply to billionaires, corporations, and unions. Contributors should say who they are, and unions usually do that. As President Theodore Roosevelt said in a 1902 speech on “Dealing with the Big Corporations,” in the interests of the common good the government needed to have regulatory powers “over the great corporations, and which shall be followed … by a system giving to the government the full knowledge which is essential for satisfactory action.” Today we need to pass the “Disclosure Act.”

Then, if it requires a Constitutional Amendment to bring back the contribution limits of the McCain-Feingold Law, let us start that process. Over and over, Americans say that they want to limit the influence of special interests, that they want to end corruption in politics, and that they want to limit the undue influence of lobbyists. If the particular ugliness and billions of dollars spent on anonymous attack ads don’t motivate change, what will?

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned against being victimized by the misuses of language in political discourse: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties , from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful . . . and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The lethal combination of anonymity and large sums of corporate money used to distort truth threatens the integrity of the American political process. But we can do something, starting with support for passing the “Disclosure Act” in the current session of Congress.