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Owing Favors - myredflags.weebly.com

By Conon Gillis - Missouri Green Party State Platform Committee

June 14, 2017

This entry is going to be a little bit of a hybrid between negative and positive. I am going to highlight a problem that currently exists in the United States as a negative then shed some light on people that are trying to fix the problem.


The issue I am looking at today came about in 2010 with a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Citizens United case. The case centered around a couple of political documentaries and whether they violated federal election laws. 

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A federal law stated that neither corporations nor unions were allowed to use their money to fund any kind of “electioneering communications” within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days from a general election. As the 2004 Presidential election approached, Michael Moore’s film that criticized George W. Bush’s handling of the September 11th attacks called Fahrenheit 9/11 was beginning to be advertised on television.

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A group called Citizens United filed a complaint saying that the Fahrenheit 9/11 ads were essentially anti George W. Bush ads and should not be allowed to run since Bush was seeking reelection. The Federal Elections Commission dismissed the complaint. Citizens United then attempted to make their own films including one critical of Hillary Clinton called Hillary: The Movie that they planned to release and run ads for around 2008 when she was expected to seek election for president.

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Citizens United filed a complaint with the courts asking them to declare that corporate and union funding restrictions unconstitutional. They also claimed that disclaimer and disclosure laws were unconstitutional. (These are the laws that require groups to have those messages at the end of ads where they say, “Paid for by ___”). ​

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Their case eventually found itself in the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices voted in a 5-4 decision that it was unconstitutional for laws to limit corporations and unions from making election-related, independent expenditures. They also voted in a 8-1 decision that the disclaimer and disclosure requirements were constitutional.

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The majority opinion (the opinion of the five justices that voted together) on declaring corporate and union funding restrictions unconstitutional explained that they viewed these laws as a violation of the First Amendment. They claimed that if a corporation or group wanted to run ads in favor of or in opposition to a candidate, it should fall under freedom of speech. With this split decision the flood gates were now open. Essentially, corporations, unions, and any other group could now run as many of their own political ads that they wanted as long as they revealed which group created the ad.


​Everyone in the U.S. has likely seen, heard, or read quite a few of these ads in the elections since 2010. Since the U.S. political system is pretty dominated by Republicans and Democrats, these groups often support a candidate from one party while bitterly opposing the candidate from the other party. This tends to make their independent ads pretty negative. The adds will often feature attacks against a person in order to convince viewers, listeners, or readers from voting for that person. Overall, this creates a very negative atmosphere in the U.S. political sphere. With regular citizens frequently being blasted with ads explaining why “this person is so terrible” and “that person is awful,” many are left with the feeling that there are no good candidates. The 2016 presidential election is an easy example. The amount of dirt that was thrown on both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by outside groups caused much of the country to feel like there was no good person to vote for. I am willing to bet that everyone reading this knows of at least one person that said something like, “I am voting for ___ to make sure that ___ doesn’t win” or “I’m choosing the lesser of two evils.”


This is unfortunate because it will likely cause people to lose faith in our democratic process and lead to lower voter turnout. Our voting percentage is already pretty low, and anything we can do to keep it from lowering would be beneficial in my opinion. However, there is another negative effect of private groups being able to run their own election ads.

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Let’s say that I choose to run for the U.S. Senate and a corporation called Monsanto (corporation based out of St. Louis that creates many agriculture related products like Round Up) chooses to take an interest in my race and run ads against my opponent.

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They could spend millions of dollars (they have plenty) to convince voters that I am great or my opponents are terrible. If I win, Monsanto is going to feel like I owe them a favor. After I am in the Senate, Monsanto may come to collect on that favor. There could be a new study showing that a key ingredient used in Round Up causes long term diseases and Congress proposes a bill to ban the ingredient. Monsanto doesn’t want to lose this ingredient, so they approach me and any other elected officials that they have helped saying that they will pull all of their support for our reelections and use it to help our opponents if we do not oppose this bill. Many of the elected officials may choose to go with Monsanto in order to keep their job instead of siding with the health of the people. Not me of course! Because my morals are too high, but that may mean that Monsanto causes me to lose the reelection and they have someone new to try and persuade in Congress.


​The above scenario creates a relationship of politicians that feel like they need to stay on good terms with wealthy corporations and other groups in order to stay in office. This relationship has definitely been seen before in U.S. politics.


In the late 1800s up to the very early 1900s, many of the major cities in the U.S. were controlled by political machines and their bosses. The political machines were often powerful, wealthy men that would use their wealth and influence to get their own members or people loyal to them into government positions. It was then expected that they would get paid back in government favors.

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​The most famous of these was a man named William Tweed (Boss Tweed) and his group called the Tweed Ring that controlled the New York City government in the later 19th century. Tweed and his ring would round up voters for the candidate(s) that they supported by targeting the poor citizens of the city and convincing them to vote the way the Tweed Ring wanted. Sometimes this was done through persuasion, but often it was just plain bribery.

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Knowing that the poor in New York were often desperate for money, the Tweed Ring would tell a person that there next month of rent would be waved if they voted for ___, or that they would get free food, or new cloths, or get to keep their job, or whatever they could do to convince them. The bosses were willing to make this investment because they knew that the return of having politicians that owed you favors would be well worth it. They even made sure that their candidate would only win by small margins so that the candidate firmly believed that they needed the political machine to win reelection.

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​Once elected, the politicians were expected to repay the favor by helping pass legislation, helping “Tweed favorites” get appointed to key positions, hiring Tweed approved companies to do city projects, etc. An example of this would be when New York chose to build a new county court house. A member of the Tweed Ring had been appointed to head the Public Works Department. He chose to contract the court house job to a company within the political machine and pay them $13 million for the work. This is about $178 million today and several times more than what the job was worth. One person was paid over $100,000 for working just two days. The bosses and some members in government would then split the excess money from the job.

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This meant that the cities tax dollars were being heavily overpaid to Tweed and his ring. They were able to continue this cycle for years as the Tweed Ring would use their influence and wealth to get people elected then turn around and cash in their favors for millions in government tax money.


​Political machines operated in many cities across the U.S. and had ties that reached all the way up to the federal government.


The relationship that the Tweed Ring and other political machines were able to create with elected officials in the late 1800s is the same relationship that corporations could create with politicians today. Many corporations in multiple fields spent millions of dollars on elections in 2016. They didn’t do this for no reason. They are looking to get a payback somehow. Whether it be insurance companies looking to get a law allowing them to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions, fossil fuel industries hoping to avoid laws that help renewable energy, pharmaceutical companies wanting to keep cheaper, equivalent prescriptions out of the U.S., etc. They all made their investment looking to get something in return that will pay off.


​Most of these companies are currently trying to influence public voting through Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs. Regular PACs are organizations that attempt to raise and spend money to get a candidate elected or defeat others. PACs may only give up to $5,000 directly to a candidate per election and may only receive up to $5,000 from any individual.

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​ A $5,000 limit is no where close to what some individuals and corporations are looking to invest though, so they normally use Super PACs. These are similar, but they are not allowed to donate directly to a candidate. Instead they must do the independent spending that the Citizens United decision allows. The upside for them is that they can spend as much as they wish and receive as much money as they wish from whomever they wish.

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These Super PACs often become the middle man between the big money from corporations helping get people elected and the politician themselves. However, there are many that are not satisfied with this status quo. Some have suggested removing the regulation that Super PACs cannot contribute directly to candidates and/or the limit of only $5,000 per election. This means that people or corporations could contribute an unlimited amount to someone’s campaign. There would be little to no doubt that that politician owes a company favors then.

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On a brighter note though, I am certainly not the only person that has realized this downside to the Citizens United decision. There are people (regular people and politicians) that are trying to get the Supreme Court decision overturned. One downside is that overturning a Supreme Court decision has limited options. It can only be done by another Supreme Court decision or another Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When Supreme Court justice Scalia died and his spot needed to be filled, whether the Citizens United decision could be overturned with a new member was a talked about issue in determining the next Supreme Court member. It is unclear where Neil Gorsuch will land on the whole issue.


​There are others that are attempting to get a 28th Amendment ratified in order to deal with Citizens United as well. I hope that one of these two routes ends up working out.


​In the mean time, regular people can help by really thinking about the advertisements that you see, hear, and read about elections and candidates. Pay attention to those disclaimers that are legally required to be included and think about who is funding those ads. As another teacher at my school has said, “Follow the money.”

(Left) A political cartoon from the Gilded Age that shows huge business men standing behind legislators, indicating that they are the ones actually in control.

(Right) A political cartoon showing large corporations that have purchased Congressmen with the same moral behind the image as the Gilded Age cartoon.

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On a related side note, that time of Boss Tweed and the political machines in the U.S. is now known as the “Gilded Age.” It is a term coined by author Mark Twain because while there was economic growth in the U.S. at that time, much of the prosperity went to the upper classes while many lower classes stayed poor. The term gilded means covered with a thin layer of gold. The late 1800s in the U.S. looked great from the outside with many millionaires and new booming businesses, but many barely scraped by underneath that layer of gold.


Many could make the argument that we are currently in a very gilded age since the top 1% of Americans control about 35% of our wealth and the next 19% of Americans control the next 50% of the wealth, leaving only 15% of the wealth for 85% of Americans. Those numbers make us look pretty gilded in my opinion, but while history shows some bleak parallels, it also gives hope. The inequality and corruption of the Gilded Era eventually gave rise to a time called the Progressive Era. We can only hope and do our part :)

​As always, please feel free to ask questions and comment whether they are in favor or opposed. Thank you!

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