The obscenity of Super PACs

Sarah Silverman in JCER video

By Eric Mink

Within the seedy and corrupt enterprise that is America’s system of political campaign financing and advertising, the independent Jewish Council for Education & Research (JCER) is an outlier.

Organized in 2008 to promote the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, JCER is one of about 1,000 “super” political action committees — a super PAC — registered with the Federal Election Commission. As such, donors can give it as much money as they want, but it has to publicly disclose the names of everyone who does.

A couple of things distinguish the New-York-based JCER from your run-of-the-mill super PAC. First, it raises and spends comparatively little money. As of September 30, JCER had spent under $32,000 on the 2012 election cycle. That’s less than one one-thousandth as much as the top liberal super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has spent to date, and less than three TEN-thousandths as much as the top conservative super PAC, Restore Our Future.

Second, JCER doesn’t buy television airtime for commercials. Instead, it gets its message out via cheap Internet distribution, social media word of mouth and a crafty knack for generating free news coverage of what it’s doing. 

Best of all, JCER’s advocacy material is fueled by fierce creativity, fearless irreverence and a decidedly Jewish sensibility that uses humor as a political weapon. 

JCER’s first attention-getting project four years ago was the Great Schlep. The premise was that young Jewish people needed to get down to Florida and make their grandparents understand it was OK to vote for Obama. The centerpiece of the project was a funny and often profane four-minute, web-only video starring comedian Sarah Silverman.

JCER jumped into the 2012 campaign in July with another outrageous Silverman video, this one targeting gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a vehement opponent of Obama and his administration. Adelson initially had poured millions of dollars into Newt Gingrich’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. When Gingrich failed, Adelson switched his donations to Mitt Romney, pledging whatever it would take to defeat Obama on November 6.

Speaking directly to Adelson and dripping with satire, Silverman offered him a specific sexual, um, service if he would drop Romney and support Obama. The over-the-top concept took full advantage of Silverman’s characteristic nonchalant disregard for boundaries and taboos — whether cultural, religious, racial, sexual or various combinations thereof.

Last week, JCER unveiled a new web-only video that reunites actor Samuel L. Jackson with author Adam Mansbach. They collaborated last year on the audiobook version of Mansbach’s best-selling children’s book for overwhelmed parents, the sweet and disarmingly honest “Go the F**k To Sleep.”

The new video, “Wake The F**k Up,” works from a script by Mansbach and stars Jackson as an omnipresent character helping a girl who’s worried about her family. In 2008, her parents and brother worked to elect Obama, but this year everyone seems tired and preoccupied. Jackson’s rhyming character helps the girl break through her relatives’ apathy.

The video cribs from the stylistic look and sound of Mansbach’s best-selling children’s book, and it is equally profane. Whether it tickles or offends you may depend on where you draw the line on vulgar language and, yes, on your political perspective.

The greater truth is that JCER is an exception among super PACs, which pose a grave threat to the nation. So do several other kinds of organizations: the pseudo-non-profit “social welfare” and “trade” associations that use sections of the IRS code to mask their political activism, hide the names of contributors and launder otherwise reportable donations; the slush funds accumulated by political parties; and the candidates’ own maniacal fund-raising and spending activities.

The problem is, in a word, obscenity.

I’m not talking about what Sarah Silverman or Samuel L. Jackson or anybody else says. I’m talking about the financing of American political campaigns. Here’s what’s obscene:

• According to Federal Election Commission reports culled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, Obama’s campaign has raised $432,197,459 and spent $354,723,446 on the president’s reelection campaign as of September 21. Romney’s campaign has raised $279,343,000 and spent $228,921,635.

• Another $330 million has been on the presidential race so far by outside groups, the vast majority of it on televised attack ads. About $93 million of those ads have targeted Republicans and $145 million have targeted Democrats, but that split is a little misleading. About $40 million of the $93 million was spent by Republicans attacking other Republicans during the primaries.

• If you include expenditures of outside groups on Senate and House races, the amount of outside money spent on elections for federal office soars to nearly $540 million as of September 30. For those of you curious as to who’s doing what to whom, about $386 million of that has been spent by conservative groups, about $143 million by liberal groups and another $8.5 million by groups without a clearly identified ideological agenda. And the most intense period of political advertising is just beginning.

• In a memo last April, Ken Goldstein and Elizabeth Wilner told clients of Kantar Media’s respected Campaign Media Analysis Group: “We estimate that nearly $7 billion dollars will be raised and spent on the 2012 elections, most of it on the presidential contest, the battle for control of the U.S. Senate and dozens of close U.S. House races.”

Seven billion dollars spent mostly on televised propaganda, distortions, misrepresentations and lies.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 got it wrong by several orders of magnitude. Yes, equating the political speech of institutions and corporations with the political speech of individuals is dangerous nonsense. But the court’s more fundamental error is equating a seven-billion-dollar plague of televised political advertising with protected political speech at all.

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, under the shield of which I have worked my entire adult life, does not protect obscenity, and it should not protect this most destructive form of it. Political advertising, which now infects and overwhelms American society in biennial cycles, is not an expression of democracy; it is a perversion of democracy.

David Cameron, Great Britain’s conservative prime minister, was a guest on CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” last week. When he told Letterman that his democracy bans paid political advertising on television and radio, the studio audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater erupted in prolonged applause and cheering. I suspect there were similar reactions in American homes from coast to coast.

I don’t know if there’s a limit to the damage our runaway campaign financing system is inflicting on American democracy, but neither do I expect we’ll ever ban political ads on television.

I do, however, occasionally let myself imagine what an honest disclaimer for those ads might say. It could go something like this:

“At best, this political commercial is a benign distortion of reality. At worst, it is a flat-out lie. Either way, it demeans the democratic process. We know that, and we do not care. Our mission is to win on election day. What happens after that to you, your family, your community and our country does not concern us in the least.”