Election 2016: This Is the Most Diverse Field of Candidates Ever (Thanks to Super PACS)
The 2016 campaign season has not only started early, but has also attracted the most diverse field of candidates perhaps ever. It features the usual coterie of mainstream governors and senators to be sure (though this season has seen these conventional candidates come out in record numbers!). But it is also playing host to a high profile business executive, a real estate mogul turned reality television star, and a brain surgeon. And a Harvard professor looks set to join the swelling ranks of candidates as well!
Even the politicians are a more diverse bunch than people are used to. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist who is not even a Democrat (though he caucuses with them in the Senate), yet he is going head-to-head with Hillary Clinton and actually gaining ground in polls. And there’s Lincoln Chafee is a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who espouses a range of unconventional policies, such as adopting the metric system.
Among Republicans there are a range of politicians who in past years might have been relegated to obscurity but who are now in the fight for the nomination. Ted Cruz speaks to an anger among Republicans with the political status quo and promises a conservatism not seen among general election candidates for many years. Rand Paul is also fighting a distinctly libertarian campaign and, though he is fighting to gain traction with primary voters, is expressing to a mainstream audience a strain of Republican thinking long kept in the corners of the party’s discourse.
What has driven this sudden blossoming of ideological heterodoxy across the political spectrum? Interestingly, it has been a much-maligned Supreme Court decision that has done it.
Citizens United was a landmark 2010 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that spending money was synonymous with political speech. This has opened the floodgates of cash into politics like never before. Billions of dollars will be spent on the presidential race. This tsunami of money has produced much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments by politicians and commentators who fear that it will erode the power of the people and give undue influence to a few moneyed individuals and corporations.
And to be fair, that fear is not unjustified. Individuals like the Koch brothers and George Soros are perceived by many people on both the left and the right as wielding power over candidates. Perhaps the most frightening demonstration of that power occurred early this month when five Republican candidates attended a retreat hosted by Charles Koch and took turns auditioning in front of conservative donors (while not forgetting to praise their aging billionaire host). Another example is Ted Cruz, who has been bankrolled by a tiny handful of donors but still has the resources to run a national campaign and develop a major profile.
That extreme concentration of influence makes many people feel queasy, and rightly so. But the bile directed at Citizens United and the Super PACs it has spawned sadly blinds critics to the potential boons it has produced.
The sheer expanse of candidates is a testament to the change that has occurred in American politics thanks to the rise of Super PAC organizations. While it has given more power to individuals with money to contribute to campaigning, the new rule has also made it possible for candidates outside of party mainstreams to obtain funding both directly and in the public space. Once it was national and state party organizations that dominated the political purse strings. Now they are much reduced in their ability to control the political process.
It is for this reason that people should perhaps not be so eager to condemn the rise of Super PACs and the unlimited monetary political speech they facilitate. Indeed, it is possible that they could break politics free of the artificial two-party duopoly. When the power to run a national campaign is no longer in the hands of permanent organizations, individuals and movements could conceivably attract the capital necessary to compete against both the Republican and Democrat brands. That alone could make all the ills worthwhile.