Whoever has the gold

In 2014, U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford was running far ahead of his opponent, state legislator Cresent Hardy. Hardy had spent much of the campaign making embarrassing statements that drove off voters.

But on election night, Hardy won. “We did what nobody thought could be done,” he said, as though he had something to do with it. He didn’t.

What happened was that a couple of weeks before election, the right wing political action committee Crossroads GPS arrived in Nevada and dumped more than three quarters of a million dollars into television spots promoting Hardy in this little U.S. House district in the West. Horsford never knew what hit him and certainly couldn’t compete with that kind of money. (Crossroads is a Karl Rove entity.) It was as clear a case of buying an election as Nevada has seen.

This year, there has been a nice little campaign going on in Nevada over whether to regulate marijuana. It has featured something reasonably close to a level playing field—until now. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson may not be able to pay his bills to build a Las Vegas stadium, but he has found a whopping $2 million to dump into the campaign on the prohibitionist side, plus another million each in Massachusetts and Florida. The Florida contribution is particularly heartless—it’s a medical marijuana measure, and patients may end up without access to one medication because of Adelson.

Democrats keep talking about the need to do something about Citizens United, the latest in a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing money to do pretty much anything it wants in our political life. But they have never spelled out how, even if they swept the Congress and presidency, they could accomplish anything. Suppose they did get a couple of Supreme Court justices onto the court. The court is not in the habit of turning on a dime and reversing itself a decade or so later. Indeed, the corporate personhood doctrine that Citizens United embodies dates back to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1819, and it has never been directly overruled by the court. Instead the justices dance around it, voiding specific effects of corporate personhood but leaving the doctrine in place.

So that leaves constitutional amendment. It is difficult to get any amendment through Congress, and in this era of gridlock and polarization, what is the prospect? Besides, do even the Democrats want to be the party that carves the first exception into the First Amendment?

It would be nice to offer an upbeat ending or solution for this mess. There is none. On this problem, the system doesn’t work. So here we are, at the mercy of the court’s awful rulings and the money of unrestrained extremists like Adelson and Rove. Democracy offers no remedy and voters don’t even know what is being done to them—or how they are being manipulated.