In the classic movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sees what life would be like if he had never lived. In this alternate universe, Bedford Falls, the idyllic small town becomes Pottersville, named after the villain in the movie - Mr. Henry Potter - a mean old banker who hates people and is only interested in the almighty dollar. Rather than a family-oriented community, Pottersville is filled with coarse and vulgar people visiting sleazy nightclubs and pawn shops.
The U.S. Supreme Court has created its own Pottersville in ruling that money is speech in two major decisions, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
In Citizens United the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions. In McCutcheon, the Court removed the overall limits on campaign contributions.
These decisions have unleashed the mega-donors giving wealthy activists a huge megaphone to spread their message while the working poor, and those who care about their plight, are left voiceless. This attitude reminds me of the classic scene in the movie where Mr. Potter wants to close the Building and Loan. He says the loans to the working poor, "give us a discontented, lazy, rabble instead of a thrifty working class." George replies, "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. ...People were human beings to [my father] but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle."
The wealthy activists certainly treat the rest of us like "rabble" or "cattle." It is having a profound effect on our electoral system. Already the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has declared unconstitutional a number of Wisconsin campaign finance statutes and rules of the Government Accountability Board. Gone is the cap on the amount a corporation may spend on fundraising for a PAC as well as the $10,000 aggregate limit on political donations to all campaigns.
And if that weren't enough, one San Francisco venture capitalist, Tom Perkins, wants to go further than money equaling speech. He wants to tie voting to taxes - one vote for every tax dollar. "You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes." A clear example of Pottersville thinking.
The U.S. Supreme Court cases place Wisconsin's entire statutory and regulatory structure of campaigns and elections in jeopardy. A hot issue is whether candidates can collaborate with independent groups. The law said they can't, but the 7th Circuit decision undercuts this law. Based on the Supreme Court decisions, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa went more extreme, halting a John Doe investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by Wisconsin's Club for Growth, Governor Walker and other activist conservative groups. He ruled the investigation violated the First Amendment rights of the groups. He stunningly ordered the evidence collected be destroyed, which the 7th Circuit immediately stopped while the case is appealed. But not to be outdone, Judge Randa found the appeal "frivolous." Welcome to Pottersville, folks.
We are entering a "Pottersville" of political campaigns. The floodgates are open to corporate and big donor spending. As the ground shifts on campaign finance, we are increasingly playing politics on an even more unlevel playing field, where money has become the medium and the message. The expansion of Super Pacs and 501(c)(4) groups spending money and running ads from unreported and unregulated sources, causes most people to hit "mute" or ignore it. We may all deplore the money and negativity, but might feel there is nothing to do to stop this madness.
On July 12, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a resolution, SJR-19, 10-8 to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow greater regulation of political spending. It is a long process, requiring not only passage by Congress, but ratification by 38 states. Two states have already called for a Constitutional Convention to amend the Constitution.
We have always known that "money talks." It is something else when it becomes the only voice that can be heard, drowning out all other voices. Pottersville is not an alternative universe where we wake-up it becomes the place where we and our families have to live.
None of us want Pottersville to become a reality. We still want to wake up in Bedford Falls, where friends gather and help build community and money does not talk.