It seems we’re looking at yet another legislative session, in both state legislatures and congress, where partisan gridlock will be preventing any effective, relevant, or necessary legislation from passing. Just read about what’s going on in Wisconsin, Colorado, and the upcoming congress (here and here).

Most Americans have been screaming for three years for our legislatures to do something to help us, the common citizen. And despite hollow promises of “a laser-focus on jobs” and “reaching across the aisle” from legislators, it seems all of their time is spent arguing over non-job-related bills with obvious political motivations and assurances of furthering our political and ideological divide.

Naturally, this has me frustrated, pensive, and reflecting back on a different time.

There have always been political and ideological divides, to be sure. But at a time of such crises, with such a struggle occurring in so many households across the country, one might think that a few, maybe even a small majority of lawmakers, could actually push aside the inflexible and overbearing will of their parties and simply start to do something.

Perusing recent legislative history, bipartisanship seemed to be more commonplace. Look at Nixon’s Impeachment, the Reagan-O’Neill cooperation, the bipartisan vote to censure President Clinton, or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold).

We’ve worked together before, even amidst other bitter ideological divides. So why can’t we seem to do it now, especially in light of the dire circumstances of so many Americans?

Here’s my theory:

Unfortunately there has always been money in politics and there will always be.  But in recent years, especially at the state level, we’ve seen more of it than ever before – exceptionally more, exorbitantly more.

Of the total sum that is being spent on advertising for or against candidates, less and less of it is coming from individuals and more and more is coming from organizations. Organizations, mind you, which are typically dedicated to a very narrow range of issues, or more commonly, a single issue.

We, as individual voters and citizens, are multi-faceted. We may lean one-way on this issue and lean the other way on another. We are hard to please. We are fickle and unpredictable. One never knows if we’ll remember to vote, or what issues we’ll vote on, or if we’ll give any money to a campaign. And despite us being the central purpose behind every lawmaker in the country, it takes hard work to make us happy; we’re seldom thankful when we are; we’re hesitant to support candidates even when they please us; and when we do, it’s with a very small amount and is limited by the federal government (not that there are many of us with more to spend on a candidate anyway).

But thanks to the Citizens United decision (which I wrote about recently) and the creation of the “super PAC,” there is no limit to what an entity can spend to further their political message. And while these super PACs cannot coordinate directly with any candidate or political party, they can openly support or criticize candidates to their heart’s content. And while they are required to list their donors, superPACs can wait to do so until long after Election Day, negating the purpose of reporting in the first place.

Most importantly, Political Action Committees are typically narrow in purpose, be it furthering corporate interest or garnering union support, protecting the environment or professing the sanctity of the unborn. These PACs are funded by entities (individuals and organizations alike) that rally around a central purpose. In other words, the support of a PAC is often entirely dependent on a candidate’s stance on a single issue, be it taxes, abortion, gay marriage, or horse slaughter.

So now look at it from a candidate’s point of view. On one hand you’ve got a complicated constituency. They are busy, struggling, forgetful, hard-to-please and have short memories. On any given day your vote can drive them to rejoice or revile you. And when you do finally earn their trust and respect, if they have the money, and if they remember, they’ll give you some table scraps for your next campaign.

On the other hand, there are a small select number of groups and organizations with a very narrow, if not singular, purpose. Their demands are extreme, but very clear. They are inflexible, but once satiated will be ever supportive. Their message can be delivered far and wide, requiring none of your time or funds, and you aren’t accountable for anything they say at all. And best of all they have oodles and oodles of money.

Placing yourself in that candidate’s shoes, ask this: in your measly two years in Congress, before your next election, whom are you going to try to please? To which entity are you going to cater? The fickle interests of your diverse, unmanageable, and struggling electorate, or the concise demands of a well-funded and easy-to-please super PAC?

But more important than “Whom you will cater to?’ is the question, “How firmly will you stand your ground in pursuit of their support?”

In short, I believe that in the aftermath of Citizens United we are seeing candidates vying more for the shady support of these monstrously well-funded and unaccountable PACS and less for the votes of a satisfied constituency. Thanks to opulent PACs, the reward for being obstinate and uncompromising on an issue is now much greater than the reward for serving the best interests of the people. Inaction is now more beneficial to a lawmaker than action!

And while the circus of legislatures around the country entertains our stagnant and putrid media conglomerates, “We the People” are left to continue our struggle to make ends meet, to keep our homes, to find a job, to afford health care, to pay for college, or to finally retire.

Here’s the real kicker, I suspect that legislators may be engaging in a wild-goose chase. This being the first presidential election year since Citizens United, the verdict is still out on the influence of campaign spending on voters. Naturally, we all know and fear the influence of money on policy, we see it everyday in the laws we are forced to swallow. But in this chase for political action dollars, I still am not convinced that spending by PACs will translate into actual votes at the polls.

Personally, I can honestly say that I have never once been swayed by a political advertisement, be it print, radio, television, or online; that is, if one happens to get past me faster than I can change the channel or turn the page. Most are so rife with distortions, inaccuracies, and platitudes or written for the 30-second-slot mentality, I find them disdainful. I am more likely to be persuaded by a candidate’s own words (be they gaffes or greatness) than by the produced and perverted suggestions of an undisclosed entity with an obvious agenda and a penchant for lying. Of course, I am told I am not representative of the majority, so perhaps I am the exception and not the norm.

I think we can safely accept that campaign spending influences lawmakers; it is human nature after all. But whether campaign spending truly influences voters remains to be seen. As we enter what will surely be an expensive and contentious election cycle, let us endeavor to be smarter than our legislators think we are. After all, they have a tough hill to climb. With congressional approval ratings at 11%, I’m not sure that even the bloated bankrolls of over 4,000 PACs can save them from the ire of a universally disgruntled citizenry.

Throughout 2012, try to ignore the swirling vortex of PAC-funded ads that threaten to drown our democracy. Pay attention to legislators’ actions and voting records, not the distortions of them widely broadcast for you to blindly accept as fact. Look for bipartisanship and flexibility. Vote for them for finding solutions and common ground, even if you don’t agree with every decision they made. Vote against them or abstain if they employ stalwart tactics, toe the party line, ignore their constituency, or put partisan politics ahead of sound policy.

Let’s show them all that we value action more than inaction, progress over stagnation, compromise over resolve, and cooperation over bickering. Tell them that it is unacceptable to court the dollars of special interest PACs while the rest of us are left twisting in the wind.

Vote to move us forward, rather than to continue to hold us back.
And let’s all flip Citizens United the bird.

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