The Netroots conference this year gave a lot of deserved attention to what are probably the two biggest threats to our democracy right now. One results from the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which allows unlimited corporate spending on political advertising. So far this election cycle, more than 80% of the spending on political advertising has been provided by Super PACS allowed by the Supreme Court, rather than by the campaigns themselves. As was also pointed out by a panel featuring no fewer than three senators (Sheldon Whitehouse, Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley), at least some members of the Supreme Court majority might be surprised to learn that two of the major safeguards that they thought would protect the public from this kind of advertising have turned out to be completely illusory.
First, the Supreme Court assumed that corporations would have to disclose their sponsorship of such political advertising. But it turns out that disclosure can be circumvented, and the public therefore need be provided no knowledge of what companies are sponsoring such super PAC advertising. Corporations thereby also escape accountability to their shareholders for such campaigns. The Republican minority in the Senate has also prevented consideration of a bill requiring disclosure, although these three senators have promised to bring it up again.
Second, the Supreme Court assumed that this kind of political advertising would be completely independent of the candidates' organizations, but that assumption turned out to be illusory also. As a result, we face a situation in which political campaigns can completely circumvent the requirements of disclosure of contributors to these "independent" organizations, while at the same time keeping their hands clean of whatever sort of negative advertising these groups care to promote. (and it is almost all negative) The danger to our democracy, as these senators explained, is not even so much that independent groups can pollute the airwaves with obnoxious and misleading advertising. The real danger is that such groups can threaten any sitting Congressman with the suggestion that they would mount such a campaign in the next election, if they do not have cooperation on whatever measure of interest to them is before the Congress.
There were also a couple of panels this year on the problems created by a massive movement by state legislatures in the last couple of years to create more obstacles to voting. These measures threaten to exclude millions of eligible voters from the rolls, primarily young people, the elderly and minorities, a fair number of whom for whatever reason do not have the required identification. I have posted about this issue before, and will no doubt talk about it again. Senator Cardin, who participated in one of the conference's voting rights panels, called these laws "the new Jim Crow," and there should be no mistake that they serve no other purpose than to suppress the vote of constituencies that are generally opposed to the Republican legislators who are almost entirely responsible for these restrictions.