In a widely shared video from CBS Sunday Morning in 2014, Jon Stewart, the now-former host of The Daily Show, described an interaction he’d had with the current Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi:
Nancy Pelosi, I’ll never forget, was sitting on the show saying we have to get money out of politics. You raised $32 million for your PAC. It was the most of anybody.
Well, what are we supposed to do, disarm?
Well no, but if money corrupts the process, and you have to get money, then you’re being corrupted by the process.
No. It corrupts them.
Why doesn’t it corrupt you?
We’re not corruptible.
Really? Because that’s what an insane person would say. Ice cream makes them fat. It doesn’t make us fat. We can metabolize it. You know why? Because we know it’s bad for you. If you know it’s bad for you, it doesn’t affect you.
Two years later, I found myself having a similar conversation with Democratic Congressional candidate Anna Throne-Holst of New York’s 1st District. Throne-Holst—a recent independent-turned-Democrat and former supervisor of the Town of Southampton, who, during her tenure, was seen as “pro-development”—is a favorite of Hillary Clinton’s political network in New York, especially of notable Clinton backer Judith Hope. When I saw her, she was speaking to the East Hampton Town Democrats, explaining her strategy to win in November against incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin.
“We really want to focus on my record of working across the aisle,” she told a room filled with committed Democrats. “People are sick of gridlock.” She went on to describe tough battles in Washington, and how political will was absent for common sense reforms. Absent from her list of key issues was campaign finance reform.
Raising my hand, I questioned this position. I pointed out, as Sen. Bernie Sanders often said during the Democratic presidential primary—and as President Obama has repeatedly acknowledged—that the gridlock in Washington is due to the influence of money rather than ideology, I called to her attention to the fact that her campaign had benefited from significantly more super PAC money than her opponent’s ($737,592 in direct support, and $163,716 against her opponent, as of June 30). I asked what motivation she would have to reform the current system if it gets her elected. Throne-Holst, who also relied heavily on independent expenditure groups in her primary race against David Calone, a longtime Democrat who eschewed them, echoed Pelosi in her response:
I took money from EMILY’s List, which does great work for women and families across the country. They help pro-choice candidates get elected to protect a woman’s right to choose, and access to healthcare. Are they a super PAC? Yes. Am I okay taking money from them? You bet I am!
When I pressed her on this answer, explaining my question was unaddressed, she snapped back that I was trying to fight an unwinnable battle from the outside, when the key to change is electing a Democratic Congress to pass legislation to reform campaign finance, and electing Hillary Clinton to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Citizens United.
“The other side is taking money from the Koch Brothers,” someone in the audience yelled out.
“What’s the matter with taking money from EMILY’s List?” another chimed in.
“Because super PACs corrupt our system,” I responded.
“That’s right,” the candidate replied. “And we have to fight back. Once I am elected I will support reform.”
And therein lies the greatest problem of the Democratic Party—especially Hillary Clinton Democrats: For too long they have rested on their laurels, comfortable in the idea that the other side is doing worse things.
This complacency has led the party down the road to financial deregulation, gutting the safety net, harsh criminal justice laws, interventionism, and bad trade deals. And now, it has led the party to embrace Citizens United.
Back in February the DNC rolled back a ban on accepting donations from federally registered lobbyists, introduced by Barack Obama in 2008, and now all pretenses are gone. Emboldened since Hillary Clinton secured the nomination—and in spite of her acceptance of donations from Wall Street, fossil fuels, and other special interests (virtually any she could get money from) as well as her illegal coordination with super PACs during the primary—Democrats are no longer hiding that they are open for business.
“I don’t get too concerned about who and what groups you take money from,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) told The Intercept.
“I think this idea that every politician that takes money automatically is influenced because they took money,” said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. “I don’t see it.”
As Jon Stewart said, what Throne-Holst and the rest of these Democrats’ arguments boil down to is the idea that even if Citizens United is corrupting our process, the Democrats are using the money to fight for good causes. They’re just playing by the rules of the game until we can reform it, even if they do not prioritize it.
This argument has long outlived its legitimacy—and it never had much to begin with. This year, Sen. Sanders ran an explosive campaign divorced from special interest money. The majority of his contributions came in the form of donations of just over $27, and he did not coordinate with super PACs. It took the full weight of the Democratic political establishment and its allies in the media, to stop the progressive upstart from winning the nomination. He proved that politicians do not have to take the money to become big players on the national stage.
Tim Canova, a Sanders progressive in Florida, is running a Congressional campaign the same way. He’s within striking distance of his opponent, the disgraced former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is a well-known incumbent.
As I have often cited in my articles—because it bears repeating—a 2014 study by professors from Northwestern and Princeton shows that our government no longer responds to the popular will. It prioritizes the demands of the elites. Much as it may be tempting for partisan Democrats to blame the GOP, both parties are to blame for the rise of what can only be described as the American oligarchy. Belying the idea that either party has the edge on this issue, since Citizens United there have been zero serious efforts to overhaul our campaign finance system.
The only way to take the government back for the people, is for voters to reject candidates who embrace Citizens United. As Sanders so often says, “Enough is enough!”