The question of the role of “big money” in American politics elicits widespread controversies that remain unresolved to date. On the one side, proponents of unlimited and unregulated money in politics argue that such a scenario is the right recipe for a robust democracy. On the other, the opponents of this approach to campaign money claim that allowing the huge imbalance of resources to dominate politics erodes democracy based on the principle of equality. The documentary “Big Sky, Big Money” is a case study on the effects of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission whereby unions and corporations can contribute an unlimited amount of money to campaigns as the support does not go directly to a certain candidate.
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From the documentary on Montana’s state elections, it is clear that while candidates are barred from getting direct monetary support from corporations, the involved intermediary bodies can be compromised. Ryssdal uncovers documents showing that the line that separates candidates from these intermediary bodies no longer exists (“Big Sky, Big Money”). For example, corporations and other donors are required to channel their support through bodies, such as super political action committees (PACs) and 501 C 4s, which in turn spend the money to purchase political ads and in other ways of influencing political opinion. The assumption here is that candidates would not know who the donors are, and the latter would not be aware of which adverts are created or placed. However, allies or family members of the candidates could be affiliated with the PACs and 501 C 4s.
Therefore, without even contacting the candidate or political parties, such individuals can figure out the kind of political advertisement favoring a certain politician. In most cases, PACs spend campaign money mainly to attack opponents of their favorite candidate and this form of tacit coordination helps a certain individual in the end. Additionally, candidates are mostly protean and vague about the programs that they support during their campaigns. Therefore, PACs could spend money to support programs affiliated with the candidate of their choice. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between funding candidates directly or using PACs and 501 C 4s.
Having established that sending money to candidates directly or using tacit coordination through PACs and 501 C 4s is almost the same, it is important to evaluate the problems associated with unlimited and undisclosed spending in politics especially on democracy. The question of donors and recipients in politics is a classic case of quid pro quo corruption. Elected officials will be inclined to take positions that serve the interests of the donors. In other words, the legislative agenda could be easily driven by donor interests.
The Supreme Court sustained the McCain-Feingold Act’s ban on soft money by saying, “The evidence connects soft money to manipulations of the legislative calendar, leading to Congress’s failure to enact, among other things, generic drug legislation, tort reform, and tobacco legislation” (Briffault). Former Congressman Mick Mulvaney confessed, “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you” (Briffault). These arguments are clear indications that unlimited and undisclosed spending affects the way politicians ultimately make legislative decisions. This case reinforces the textbook content in many aspects. For instance, the case shows that unlimited and undisclosed funding shapes American politics and significantly contributes to the candidates who win elections, which are the same claims made in the book.
“Big Sky, Big Money.” PBS, uploaded by Frontline. 2012, Web.
Briffault, Richard. “Campaign Spending isn’t the Problem – Where the Money comes from is.” The Conversation. 2018, Web.
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