My Turn: The corrupting power of debt

“Money Talks. We translate.” That’s one of the taglines you’ll find at OpenSecrets.org, a website dedicated to tracking congressional campaign spending. What’s the translation for the $37 million being spent on the behalf of Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and his main opponent, Dan Sullivan? It means the U.S. Senator we elect to represent the interests of Alaskans will be beholden to national party leaders and wealthy outsiders.

No one should be surprised about the Outside spending here. More than two years ago Begich sent out a fundraising letter to Alaska Democrats warning that “the entire national right-wing attack machine” would be flooding the state with attack ads in an effort to defeat him.

Begich foresaw the tsunami of Outside money rushing up on our shores after the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. That’s when the court declared that all independent political campaign spending is free speech protected by the First Amendment. That includes spending by corporations, unions and nonprofits. These groups can’t contribute directly to candidates or political parties, but they are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money advertising on behalf of or against any candidate.

The laws overturned by the ruling were enacted to reduce the likelihood that elected officials would seek illegitimate personal gain through the power of their public office. That’s called corruption, the oldest and most blatant form of which is bribery. Clearly that’s not happening here. But even if it’s all legal, there’s a similar relationship created between the contributor and beneficiary. One gives, and the other feels the weight of debt.

David Graeber is a social anthropologist and author of a book titled “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” He claims there’s ample evidence to suggest that ancient forms of debt played a role in the development of monetary currencies. One form was the implied reciprocity for gifts received. Even when the person giving “fervently denied they expected anything back,” he writes, “everyone understood there were implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.”

The point here is that even though PAC campaign money isn’t solicited and their ads are not authorized by either candidate, both Begich and Sullivan will feel more than mere gratitude to those who spent millions of dollars to help them win.

So who are these PACs?

On Sullivan’s side, the big three are the National Republican Senatorial Committee, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. The startup of the latter two contains the fingerprints of Karl Rove, the White House Deputy Chief under President George W. Bush. So far, these groups have spent $11.5 million attacking Begich. There’s another $3.3 million from other Outside PACs.

Why do they care so much about Alaska? Everyone knows we’ve been voting for Republicans for decades until Begich slipped through the door in 2008 when the late Sen. Ted Stevens was under indictment. The national GOP not only wants that seat back, they want to regain control of the Senate, which they lost in ‘08 too.

Democrats aren’t going down without a fight, though. Indeed, PACs have spent $21 million attacking Begich’s opponent. Alaska SalmonPAC accounts for about $2 million of that. Almost all the rest is nationally flavored.

National Democrats have kicked in a whopping $12.6 million, including $3.8 million from the National Democratic Senatorial Committee. The rest is from a super PAC named Put Alaska First. It’s not an Alaska PAC at all. While they claim to be a “nonpartisan political action committee that supports candidates that place Alaska’s interests ahead of partisanship,” they’ve been breast-fed with $8.8 million from the Senate Majority PAC.

This spending tells us that Alaska’s senate race is about party power at the national level. Now, we’ve all heard the expression “power tends to corrupt.”

Graeber writes that to give power a moral value you only have to “turn it into a relation of debt.” And that’s how it works for party bosses and wealthy donors. They seek and gain power by the moral sense of indebtedness of those they help elect to office.

What does this mean to Alaska, our democracy and the American ideal of equal rights for all? What we need is a constitutional amendment that clearly states spending money is not a form of protected free speech. Until that happens, the corrupted wealth in this country will continue to destroy the power and voice of “we the people.”

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 35 years of experience working in the public sector.

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