WASHINGTON — For those who believe money already has too much power in American politics, 2012 will be a miserable year. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, lassitude at the Federal Election Commission and the growing audacity of very rich conservatives have created a new political system that will make the politics of the Gilded Age look like a clean government paradise.
Americans won’t even fully know what’s happening to them because so much can be donated in secrecy to opaque organizations. It’s always helpful for voters to know who is trying to buy an election, and for whom. This time, much of the auction will be held in private. You can be sure that the candidates will find out who helped elect them, but the voters will remain in the dark.
We do know that the playing field this year is tilted sharply to the right. Journalists often focus on the world of rich liberals in places such as Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But there are even more conservative millionaire and billionaire donors who hail from less mediagenic places. There is, for example, a lot of oil money in Texas. Then there’s Wall Street. Once a bountiful source of Democratic as well as Republican cash, it has shifted toward the party of Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
Republicans argue that turnabout is fair play. Barack Obama shunned the public financing system in 2008 and vastly outspent John McCain. Democrats, they say, are complaining now because they are at a disadvantage.
That’s at best half right. It’s true that Obama struck a blow against public financing, though the system was insufficiently financed and would eventually have collapsed under its own weight. And four years ago, Obama filled his coffers through the regulated system that limited the size of contributions and required disclosure. This year, there are no guardrails, no limits on what can be raised and spent. A remarkably small number of very wealthy people will be able to do what hasn’t been done for generations.