Americans were already deeply cynical about their politics, before Citizens United. But while there was once a means, however faint, to argue that the system is not a dull gloss over what is in essence an elaborate sporting event with dueling oligarchs jockeying over what amounts to most of us as minutiae, the Super PAC order of today renders that optimism not naïve but simply delusional. In the same way people know professional wrestling is fake — even if the role of “winner” is traded back-and-forth between dueling sides — voters will soon believe, if they don’t already, that American democracy is a sham.
It may continue to provide good copy for Wilkinson, Weigel, and me, but the Citizens United decision nevertheless remains, on the whole, a disaster.
Is the CU decision the disaster, or is the disaster what, post-CU, we are seeing ever more clearly? Put differently, is it in the final analysis possible to agree with Mr. Isquith without disagreeing with him?
Now, to suggest that citizens may have very good reasons to be united in their belief that American democracy is a sham is not to say that they do not or should not have other good reasons to believe other things about American democracy as well. It could be, for instance, that the mass electoral arm of the American system has never functioned ideally, was never designed to function ideally, and cannot be made to function ideally or very much more nearly ideally without requiring the sacrifice of other ideals or values – in short that our approach to election campaigns is necessarily informed by the same Madisonian borderline attraction-repulsion complex that attaches to every other aspect of applied American political science, from the management and tabulation of actual voting, to the obligations and privileges of citizenship, to the relations between and true powers of the various branches and sub-branches, to the functioning of the judicial system from top to bottom.
Yet whatever the deeper truth about the American system such as it is, the post-CU world is a world in which the 0.0001% are financing a remarkably effective satire undermining themselves and their chosen spokespeople: Diminishing returns as morality play. Don’t we mostly believe that the main “beneficiaries” of SuperPAC spending have mostly suffered in public esteem over the course of an extremely disproportionately negative campaign? Does anyone believe that the candidates, their party, or the interests that the candidates and party seek to represent are “doing better” right now than they were before the Republican campaign really got going? Has any Occupy protest or even any interview with Donald Trump done more to expose the irrationality of an economic system that to some impressively large extent reserves its greatest rewards for people who do not deserve them?
Who needs Karl Marx when we have Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and the shrinking men they pay for on vividly multimediatized display?
It could be that by November the SuperPACS will have discovered something to say and a way to say it that somehow reverses the increasingly indelible impression that they’re making fools of themselves, but speech is not merely a commodity sold by the ton. It has to have something to convey. The main message of the SuperPAC-oids, repeated and received and repeated and received again, has so far been that people like them, all of the people that people like them like, and all of the other people like them at all, to whatever extent they like them or are like them, are dangerous and ridiculous. On present evidence that will continue to be their only real message until and unless they themselves, embarrassed to be the last ones to get their own joke, finally discover less self-destructive ways to waste their money.