By Patrick Murphy
The presidential election of 1828, in which Andrew Jackson won a rematch victory over John Quincy Adams, was perhaps one of the nastiest election contests of its time. Allegations flew back and forth about gambling, bigamy and adultery. Many see it as the advent of political mudslinging. You might say it sounds familiar, but there is one important difference: in last November’s midterm campaigns, over $3.7 billion was spent on political advertising across the country, most of it used on negative TV ads that would cause the mudslingers of 1828 to blush.
Never before in our nation’s history has such an obscene amount of money been used to distort the will of the people and give such an extremely undue influence to anonymous, dark-money donors. We are truly living in an age when unaccountable millionaires and billionaires can pull the strings of democracy.
Last week, an op-ed published in this paper criticized my strong opposition to the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision which created Super PACs, opening a flood of unaccountable money into our political system. That decision is among the most detrimental to our democracy in American history, and I have always opposed it.
Unsurprisingly, that op-ed was actually written by one of these dark-money groups, Americans for Prosperity, which spends millions of dollars trying to buy elections and thwart the will of the voters.
The Citizens United decision dramatically intensified the political gridlock in our country. Look at the gerrymandering of legislative districts in Florida, or the polarization in Washington that prevents us from making progress on our serious challenges — virtually all of it can be traced to malicious campaigns funded by dark-money groups that pour millions of dollars into negative TV ads and mail pieces. It’s no wonder that voter turnout in our state’s elections is abysmal. By Election Day, many voters are so soured on all the candidates that they simply do not vote.
Citizens United was no victory for free speech. It was a chilling rejection of the political transparency that we can trace back to the Watergate reforms that followed the disgraceful Nixon resignation and was later strengthened by the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002. I am proud to sponsor several pieces of legislation to take money out of politics, including the Shareholder Protection Act, the DISCLOSE Act, and the Democracy for All constitutional amendment. I was recently honored to receive the endorsement of End Citizens United, the grassroots movement to overturn the court’s decision.
The decision in Citizens United said that money equals speech, a position that I – and a vast majority of Americans, in poll after poll – could not disagree with more. Take the billionaires Charles and David Koch, who fund Americans for Prosperity, the group that criticized me last week. The Kochs pledged at the outset of this year to spend $889 million to influence next November’s presidential race. Almost a billion dollars from just two people!
Why should they have a greater say in who our elected representatives are than you or I do? Do their voices matter more than a public school teacher in Jupiter? Or a firefighter in Jacksonville? Or an elderly couple in Century Village? By blessing the unlimited amounts of money that have negatively permeated our airwaves in November after November, the Supreme Court agreed that, yes, their voices matter more than yours.
How can we change this unacceptable status quo? We need to elect a majority in the U.S. Senate dedicated to overturning Citizens United. As a result, we must play by the rules in front of us. Campaign finance reformers cannot unilaterally disarm and allow the special interests and dark-money contributors to dominate our political discourse. We need to end unlimited, unaccountable money for all political parties by passing comprehensive campaign finance reform. Only then can we end the incessant name-calling, gridlock, and obstructionism in Congress, and restore the trust between voters and the elected officials they send to Washington. Our leaders should be accountable only to the people.
It’s time to take our politics out of the gutter and focus on working on the serious challenges our country faces. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said it best in his dissenting opinion in Citizens United: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” Chilling words indeed — and a reminder that by fighting against Citizens United, we are fighting for our democracy itself.
Patrick Erin Murphy is an American accountant, politician and member of the Democratic Party who has been the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 18th congressional district since 2013. He wrote this for the Sun Sentinel.
# # #