4 ways super PACs are good for democracy

Many Americans assume super PACs are evil. But there are plenty of good reasons to applaud the new flood of cash flowing freely into our body politic

Super PACs actually level the playing field, allowing candidates like Newt Gingrich, would have been out long ago.
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court has gotten a lot of grief over its 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the door for deep-pocketed political action committees to drown this year's presidential race in cash from (sometimes anonymous) billionaires, corporations, and unions. Even politicians who rely on these super PACs, like Newt Gingrich — or plan to, like President Obama — say they don't like unaccountable financial behemoths. But what if campaign-finance reformers are wrong? Here, four ways super PACs might actually be good for democracy:

1. Super PACs increase transparency

Are super PACs still too secret? Yes, says David Weigel at Slate. Have a handful of billionaires completely reshaped the race? Yes. But "there's more information out there about super PAC donors than there is about virtually any other kind of campaign fundraising... Maybe it's the novelty, maybe it's the size of the checks, but the rise of the super PAC has come with constant, clickable scrutiny from the Fourth Estate." Newt Gingrich's super PAC benefactor Sheldon Adelson has been profiled by every major newspaper. Meanwhile, "Rick Santorum's savior" — the "cowboy-hatted billionaire" Foster Friess — "has acted like a venture capitalist, putting seed money in a product and then shouting from the mountains about how more people should buy in."

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2. They help level the playing field

This huge influx of campaign money, paradoxically, "ensures a stronger competitive balance in elections," says Josh Kraushaar at National Journal. Take the GOP race: Mitt Romney's campaign has outspent Newt's by a 7-2 margin and Rick Santorum's 19-to-1, says Weigel. Super PACs help close the gap. Romney's super PAC outspent Newt's 2-to-1, and overpowered Santorum's 8-to-1. That's still a big advantage for Mitt, but "take away the super PACs, and Santorum would have probably had to drop out after Iowa," the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison tells Slate. "Gingrich might have had to drop out after South Carolina." And remember, says Kraushaar, without GOP super PACs, Romney would be at a huge disadvantage in November to President Obama's incumbency-fueled fundraising powerhouse.

3. Super PACs inform voters

The whole premise that super PACs are anti-democratic is off-base, says the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. Their "main function is one at the heart of democracy: Spreading information and arguments that voters may find useful in casting their votes." In other words, free speech. It's not like anybody has "accused super PACs of bribing voters."

4. They remind us how corrupt the system really is

"Our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago," says Ari Berman at The Huffington Post. So there's only one good thing about a new electoral landscape "almost exclusively defined by the 1 percent" — or, more accurately, "the .0000063 percent." Now that we see the naked influence of the 196 individual donors who have provided 80 percent of the money raised by super PACs, the public's focus has shifted "to the staggering inequality in our political system." And that's good for democracy.

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