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How Super PACs Weaken the Social Contract

David Callahan

You don't need a PhD in political science to know that America's social contract is badly frayed. A battery of polls and studies over recent years reveal the following depressing facts: That many Americans don't believe that they have much say in how the rules of society are made; many don't believe they will get ahead if they play by the rules; and many don't believe that the rules are enforced fairly, regardless of class or connections.

This cynicism is poisonous to democracy, which is a system that depends on faith in reciprocity -- i.e., that we as citizens all get a say how in things operate and live on a level playing field, and, in exchange, we give up certain rights and fulfill certain obligations.

When people stop believing that reciprocity is for real, or that the social contract works, some start behaving badly. They may turn to crime, cheat on their taxes, gravitate to extremist movements, and  even embrace violence. Most commonly, though, they just give up on civic life -- setting the stage for a further weakening of the social contract as democratic institutions come to represent fewer people and are seen as even less legitimate.

That pretty much describes America in recent years, a country with the lowest voter turnout rate in the industrialized world and the lowest levels of trust in government.

It was hard to imagine that Americans could grow even more cynical and that things could get much worse. But now they have, thanks to Citizens United and the rise of Super PACs. According to a new survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU:

An alarming number of Americans report that their concerns about the influence of donors to outside political groups make them less likely to engage in democracy. Communities of color, those with lower incomes, and individuals with less formal education are more likely to disengage due to concerns about how much influence is wielded by Super PAC donors.

  • Two in three Americans — 65% — say that they trust government less because big donors to Super PACs have more influence than regular voters. Republicans (67%) and Democrats (69%) uniformly agree.
  • One in four Americans — 26% — say that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans.
  • Less wealthy and less educated Americans were significantly more likely to say they would be less likely to vote because of Super PAC influence: 34% of respondents with no more than a high school education, and 34% of those in households with an annual income less than $35,000, said they would be less likely to vote.
  • A higher number of African-American and Hispanic voters also stated that the disproportionate influence of Super PAC donors will discourage them from voting: 29% of African Americans and 34% of Hispanics said they were less likely to vote because of Super PAC influence. 

The survey also found that most Americans believe money talks in politics.

Large majorities of Americans believe that members of Congress will favor the interests of those who donate to Super PACs over those who do not — and that Super PAC donors can pressure elected officials to alter their votes.

  • More than two-thirds of all respondents (68%) — including 71% of Democrats and Republicans — agreed that a company that spent $100,000 to help elect a member of Congress could successfully pressure him or her to change a vote on proposed legislation. Only one in five respondents disagreed.
  • More than three-quarters of all respondents — 77% — agreed that members of Congress are more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest. Similar numbers of Republicans (81%) and Democrats (79%) agreed. Only 10% disagreed.