Two recent reports should concern anyone who still believes average citizens can influence their government and political leaders.
One report showed that for the first time in Minnesota history, spending by outside groups such as political parties and political action committees outpaced spending by the candidates themselves in Minnesota legislative races.
The other report noted that members of Congress have significantly cut back on their town hall meetings for fear they will be hijacked by special interest groups that show up en masse as part of a plan to embarrass a candidate and divert the attention of the meeting.
Taken together, the reports suggest that representative democracy is being undermined by special interests, further distancing elected representatives from their constituents.
The details are unsettling. The Star Tribune reported that the cost of campaigning for House or Senate seats in Minnesota has nearly doubled in just 10 years. The newspaper’s research showed that spending for the average House race went from $50,000 to $91,000 from 2002 to 2012 and for a Senate race, the spending went from an average of $78,000 to $171,000, a 120 percent increase.
In one key race for a Senate district where 50,000 votes were cast, DFL candidate Melisa Franzen and Republican Rep. Keith Downey each spent about $110,000 on the race. But outside groups spent about $300,000 to defeat Downey, while the groups spent about $150,000 against Franzen, the newspaper reported.
Another report Monday in the Star Tribune detailed the decline of the typical town hall meeting among Minnesota’s members of Congress. Candidates’ representatives say they choose other means of meeting constituents in lieu of the open town hall meetings that can be subject to a “takeover” by interest groups bused in to create embarrassing confrontations with elected representatives on video that may be put on the Internet and go viral.
The representatives cite meetings with groups of citizens at the State Fair, for example, as places where they can meet constituents face to face. Others conduct more controlled town hall meetings via teleconference call where they can screen those who get to ask questions.
Critics of opposing parties dismiss these alternatives and say elected representatives should attend meetings where they can hear from people who don’t agree with them. Some have resorted to putting cardboard cutouts and pictures of the representatives in empty chairs at meetings where they don’t show.
At some point, elected leaders have to be willing to face “real” constituents no matter what their political views. And at some point, these interest groups that would hijack a normally civil meeting to score some Internet viral videos of representatives need to be shown the door.
When real people can have reasonable and regular access to their elected leaders, better policy comes forth, and there won’t be as much of a need for defensive tactics. But that also might help solve the other problem: special interest money pouring in to influence elections and, in some cases, flipping the entire state government from one party to the other.
Legislative races in Minnesota used to be relatively quiet affairs. Campaign spending by each side remained in five figures. Now the spending is six figures and beyond. Outside interests can take out attack ads at will. Candidates are hit by surprise. It’s the new political reality in light of the recent Citizens United Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates on political spending.
But when elected leaders represent the real people of their district, there won’t be as much incentive for special interests to turn on the money spigot to garner outcomes that are often not what the people ordered.