Getting Dark Money Out of American Politics

Unless you’ve been living in a cave with poor wi-fi, then you’ll have a reasonable idea as to the health of American politics rights now. And the diagnosis is not good. Putting aside a reality-TV show star masquerading as Commander-in-Chief, and the whole merry go-round that that entails, equally as troubling is the malign influence of secretive “dark money” on the American democratic process.

“Politically active nonprofits – principally 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s – have become a major force in federal elections over the last three cycles. The term "dark money" is often applied to this category of political spender because these groups do not have to disclose the sources of their funding…” [1]

If that doesn’t sound at all good for American democracy, that’s because it isn’t. These are super PACs on steroids and the depths that dark money is now dragging the American democratic process down into are unprecedented. The amounts involved are obscene – hundreds of millions of dollars spent during federal election campaigns in recent years alone.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United confirmed that the flood-gates were now open and that corporations (and trade unions) could effectively spend as much as they liked in support of a candidate or issue. Dark money has become the vehicle of choice to deliver that.

“The majority opinion in Citizens United takes up 57 pages, but it’s pretty efficiently boiled down as follows: (1) Money is speech; (2) corporations are people; (3) therefore, under the First Amendment, the government can’t stop corporations from spending money on politics pretty much however they choose.” [2]

This of course rips apart the very fabric of our democratic tapestry. Dark money is the very antithesis of democracy. The Founding Fathers surely did not envisage the removal of an unelected, unaccountable and moneyed King and supporting aristocracy only for the US to find itself at the whim and mercy of unaccountable money just a couple of centuries later?

That inevitably brings us to the question of what then can be done to stop dark money from further still increasing its chokehold on American democracy?

While over-turning inherently undemocratic case law such as Citizens United is certainly a desirable goal (more of which later), campaign self-funding is one proposition. While still dwarfed by those funded externally, self-funding is steadily increasing its profile.

Beto O’Rourke’s recent Senate challenge against Ted Cruz was self-funded. Rejecting Washington’s “politics as usual” O’Rourke, at the start of his campaign, O’Rourke stressed his self-funding credentials.

“I’m one of two members of Congress out of 535 that takes no corporate cash, no political action committ