Let’s face it, democracy in America is like Santa Claus: a fantasy. Merely something nice to believe in. After all, who wouldn’t want some jolly old grandfather type sliding down their chimney with lots of presents, or a country where a crusader for truth and justice can get elected to office strictly on the merits of his or her ideas?
These days, unless you have at least one super PAC raising millions of dollars and spreading the appropriate spin about your candidacy, not to mention smearing the crap out of your opponent, you probably won’t get very far in national politics.
With the Supreme Court siding with big money and ruling that corporations are people and can’t be restricted in any way in their giving to political campaigns, there really isn’t any hope. In that decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supremes wrote, in their infinite stupidity or, worse yet, complicity, “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
Too late. The electorate, if they have any brains at all, already feel that there is no way in hell democracy triumphs in most elections in this country. Especially when they’re outright stolen as George Bush the younger’s first election was. Or when the Republicans suddenly start messing with the voter rolls in several states. A little clean up or outright suppression of Democratic voters? You decide.
During my two decades of activism here in San Francisco, I’ve seen elections that are about as democratic as Mitt Romney is honest. Tons of money pours into local races. You’d think the world was at stake, and it is for groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the developers that make millions building more market rate housing, the last thing we need here in a city that has 10,000 homeless and countless others in desperate need of affordable digs.
Progressives in the city try to buck this corrupt system all the time. Sometimes we win, such as in 2000 when a majority of progressives and neighborhood activists got elected to the Board of Supervisors. But that victory was short-lived because the mayors they served under (hardly progressives) could easily veto their legislation. They didn’t have the votes to overturn a veto.
The worst example of money buying a local election was when Tom Ammiano, then an out gay member of the Board of Supervisors (and now a state assemblymember), jumped into the 1999 mayoral race at the last moment via a write-in campaign initiated by local housing activists, myself included.
Inspired by Ammiano’s opposition to the massive displacement of poor and working-class people caused by the dot-com boom (that the fat cats in City Hall were ignoring), thousands of young volunteers hit the streets to spread their gospel of a city for all, rich and poor.
The machine raised unbelievable amounts of money and pulled out all stops, including TV ads that featured a gay male couple who preferred voting for a straight candidate over Ammiano. A builders group took out a full-page ad accusing Ammiano of being anti-Catholic because he supported the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of mostly gay male nuns, when they wanted to close down Castro Street for an Easter celebration. Ballot boxes were even found floating in the bay on the day after the election.
Yes, Virginia, there really is NO Santa Claus.