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Democracy for sale

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It's hard to imagine a generic politician such as U.S. Sen. Richard Burr being a harbinger of the future, but there he was last week: a half-page ad in the daily paper, paid for by a shady outside group, brimming with lies — and more than a year before the next election. You probably thought the U.S. elections system was a big mess that couldn't get much worse. Think again, because if you thought the 2010 national midterm elections were obnoxious, just wait. Sen. Burr's half-page ad, as appalling as it was, is just an early indicator of the money-driven nastiness we have in store for us over the next 13 months.

It's generally recognized by anyone who follows politics that we Americans have the most screwed-up national elections system of any major democracy. U.S. Senate candidates have to raise tens of millions of dollars to run for a job that pays $174K per year. House hopefuls who, if they win, are faced with re-election battles every other year, have basically been reduced to the role of permanent beggars, albeit well-paid ones. What's more, our election seasons seem to last forever, especially when compared to other countries. In the UK, campaign season is usually five to six weeks; in Australia, six weeks. And French presidential campaigns? Three weeks. (Imagine how great that would feel.) Here, on the other hand, pundits were already speculating about the 2012 presidential race within a couple of weeks of the 2008 election.

Voters say that what they hate the most about elections is the flood of attack ads that increase in frequency, and raw nastiness, as Election Day nears. With tons of money available, broadcast ad time is snatched up by election pros, turning our airwaves into founts of scurrilous charges, sleazy exaggerations and blatant lies. You hate it, I hate it, everyone gripes about it, but the terrible truth is that it's all about to become even more abysmal, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In January 2010, a bitterly divided Court, in its Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, overruled important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and decreed that corporations and unions can pour as much money as they want into "independent expenditure-only committees" (or "Super PACs"), which are set up for the sole purpose of spending funds on election advertising. By Election Day 2010, Super PACs — which, remember, didn't even exist before Citizens United — had spent more than $60 million dollars, much of it used to target specific candidates. Karl Rove's Super PAC, American Crossroads, for instance, spent about $3 million trying to unseat Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), while progressive Super PACs poured $3.3 million into Sen. Patty Murray's (D-WA) re-election campaign. Overall, conservative Super PACs outraised and outspent progressive groups about 3-2, according to election spending watchdogs at the Center for Responsive Politics, which also concluded that Super PAC spending was a key force in the election of a GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

One of the Super PACs, the American Action Network (AAN), is a conservative group backed by Republicans with close ties to Wall Street. They're the ones who paid for the Richard Burr half-page ad last week — an ad that represents a lot of what's wrong with both the Citizens United decision and with "outside groups" in general. Parroting the same line AAN is using in 13 other states, the ad declares that Burr is working to stop Democrats from allegedly "balancing the budget on the backs of seniors." The claim is breathtakingly Orwellian, in the sense that, well, it's a big lie that is the exact opposite of the truth. AAN's ads claim that Democrats in Congress are wrecking Medicare's prescription drug program, when in fact what they're trying to do is lower drug prices by allowing seniors who also receive Medicaid to keep paying the lower Medicaid price rather than the more expensive Medicare price.

And why are Medicare drug prices higher? Because the GOP made sure, when it rammed through the Medicare drug program in 2003, that the government could not negotiate for lower prices from drug companies, as it does for Medicaid. In other words, the program was a big, wrapped gift from the GOP to the pharmaceutical industry. That industry wants to keep its sweet deal, and so — voila — it pours money into AAN.

Now, imagine that level of deceit and sleaziness multiplied by, say, a thousand, and you'll have some idea of what the 2012 election campaigns will be like. But don't forget: campaign season has already begun.

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