Most people are at least familiar with Stephen Colbert's name, even if you've never watched a single episode of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. That's probably because the man is a self promotional machine. For example, back in 2009 NASA did a poll to decide on a name for the newest node added to the ISS (International Space Station). Colbert exhorted his viewers to vote and ultimately he actually topped the list. NASA did, ultimately choose to name it 'Tranquility' but Colbert still got his name in space. NASA named the treadmill that would be housed in that node after him. Well, to be accurate they named it the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. In his typical deadpan, Colbert responded that:
"I think a treadmill is better than a node ... because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says, 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."
While it may seem frivolous on the surface, the incident did draw more attention to the often forgotten ISS and NASA in general. And ultimately I think that's what he wanted all along. Celebrities have long used their popular reach to raise awareness of a cause, Colbert just does it with his own unique, over the top, faux conservative flair.
This election season, Colbert is using the same sort of technique to draw attention to something that is far more important to our democracy, campaign finance. Specifically the practical results of the Supreme Court's so called 'Citizen's United' decision. Over the last year, Colbert has, in the guise of his uber-Conservative on-screen persona, laid bare the real world implications of that decision. It began with his declaration that he would be forming his own 'Super PAC,' a political action committee that is allowed to raise unlimited donations from any individual, group or business. While Super PACs are required to disclose donors, like regular PACs, they can usually take advantage of technicalities to delay disclosure far longer and sometimes even until after the election itself, thus making the disclosure more academic than enlightening. In successive episodes throughout the year Colbert went through the process, always doing so with his lawyer, Trevor Potter, on hand to show that there was a serious legal footing to the segment. As Potter said in an interview with NPR in September 2011,
"It's not a joke. Because, as he has put it, he wanted to bring people in behind the curtain so they could see [how superPACs] actually worked and what they actually did."
He certainly does that. To watch these segments is to see the threadbare legal fiction that has been created to allow cash to pour into our political system with minimal oversight. Literally, it requires only a few sheets of paper to be signed in order to 'upgrade' a regular PAC, which operates under more restrictive rules, to be a Super PAC. From what I can tell, it takes more effort and paperwork to setup a one man, home business than it does to setup a Super PAC that can collect and administer donations into the tens of millions of dollars. And the home business probably requires more oversight!
One of the other fictions at work here is that a candidate cannot directly coordinate with a Super PAC. The operative word here is 'directly,' as most of the current gang of Super PACs are actually being run by close associates and, in many cases, former senior campaign staffers! Not a lot of separation there, thus making the Super PAC, functionally, just an extension of the candidate's formal campaign apparatus. Colbert pointed this out in a recent episode, with his usual comedic twist. During a very brief 'campaign' to run for President of the United States of South Carolina, he transferred control of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. A few days later he spoke to his audience about not being able to directly coordinate with Stewart about the Super PAC's activities and then proceeded to openly ponder what Stewart might do with all that Super PAC money. Indirectly mocking Newt Gingrich's earlier press conference where he 'called on' the Super PAC supporting his campaign to not run a particular ad in its current form. This is apparently not coordinating. It seems that as long as the campaign staff doesn't meet with Super PAC representatives or call them up directly, you can coordinate via the media to your heart's content. Thus this so called restriction is merely a minor inconvenience rather than an actual impediment.
There are a lot of things we need in our electoral system, but more money sure isn't one of them. What benefit does our Republic actually gain from hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations? Does it ensure just and fair elections? Does it give us candidates who are more dedicated to serving the people? Does it help provide us with unbiased facts on, not just what the candidates say they stand for, but what they've actually done? Does it make elected officials more trustworthy? That would be a 'No' on all accounts. What it does accomplish is to ensure our elected politicians feel indebted to those who flooded their campaigns with cash and not the rule of law or service to their constituents. It allows the candidates to overwhelm the voters with a flood of propaganda that neither informs nor educates them, but simply hammers them with repetitious soundbites and wild hyperbole. It all but guarantees that, if elected and faced with a choice between safeguarding their constituents or smoothing the way for a lavish donor, that the voter will almost always lose. There is no doubt that money is one of the greatest corrupting forces in this world and the one place we do NOT need more corruption is our government! There's a saying 'that everyone has their price' and as long as we allow private money to run rampant in our electoral system we will ensure that politicians are consistently able to achieve their particular asking price.