Socialists and Leveraging Super PACs

Duane Townsend

Jacobin - June 27, 2020

"Blanket criticism of “corporate” donations, absent an understanding of whether that donation is from a for-profit business compared to a liberal-left or socialist nonprofit, wouldn’t make much sense. Justice Democrats’criticswould be more concerned if the organization’s super PAC took donations from, say, Jeff Bezos than a left-wing 501c4 nonprofit. Sunrise Movement’stweetsincluded a clarification that they and Justice Democrats would not take corporate money because “to do so would be hypocritical.” Still, a donation from grassroots nonprofits should not be considered the same as a private business, even if both are “corporations” for tax purposes."

Last May, Politicoreported that Justice Democrats, the congressionally focused insurgent candidate recruitment and training operation that helped launch Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s career, started a super PAC. Justice Democrats’ structure as a political action committee (PAC) permits it to work directly with Democratic primary insurgents while observing strict spending limits. A super PAC, on the other hand, would allow Justice Democrats to spend unlimited funds on campaigns as long as that spending is an “independent expenditure,” electoral work done on behalf of or against a campaign without communicating with the beneficiary candidate.

Both Bernie Sanders and AOC have called for the end of super PACs. Yet when Justice Democrats launched their super PAC, groups like the Sunrise Movement jumped to their partner’s defense. In a series of tweets, the environmental justice organization wrote: “All your favorites—including everyone who put real support behind @BernieSanders—have this setup.” The setup seemed to work for Jamaal Bowman’s recently successful campaign, which benefited from a large super PAC intervention on his behalf from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party.

Socialists need to understand the class dynamics of campaign finance regulation. Not all PAC donors are created equal, and for electoral purposes, not all “corporate entities” are businesses. Understanding the class antagonisms and nuances of campaign finance law can help us better understand how to assess what groups like Justice Democrats are doing and how socialists should relate to them.

The Super PAC and its Critics

Sanders explicitly called to reverse Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that created super PACs, throughout both of his presidential campaigns. This court decision allowed unlimited spending and donations by an entity called a super PAC so long as the committee does not “coordinate,” or privately strategize, with the candidate.

The Federal Election Commission, the US government’s campaign finance body, defines super PACs as thus:

Super PACs are independent expenditure-only political committees that may receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, labor unions, and other political action committees for the purpose of financing independent expenditures and other independent political activity. The committee will not use those funds to make contributions, whether direct, in-kind, or via coordinated communications, to federal candidates or committees.

Despite having similar names, a PAC and a super PAC do very different kinds of electioneering. Justice Democrats is a PAC because they do coordinate with candidates; a super PAC by law cannot coordinate with campaigns. PACs have much stricter spending and contribution limits than super PACs, the latter of which face basically no restrictions. Federal PACs cannot give more than about $6,000 for a congressional, senate, or presidential campaign — a drop in the bucket to the large amounts super PACs and other independent expenditures can spend. Campaign finance reform advocates and other progressives argue that this lack of restraints gives the wealthy and corporations even greater influence in our political process.

Some of the common criticisms against Justice Democrats (or any progressive group) starting a super PAC were 1) the super PAC could take corporate money, 2) super PACs are dark-money groups that do not reveal their donors, and 3) we should not use the entities we oppose. To examine these concerns and the ethics of taking “corporate” money, we need to understand first an important legal definition. Typically, when we use the word “corporation,” we are referring to large multinational companies like McDonald’s or Walmart. But a corporation in the broadest sense is just a legally formed institution that can act as a person would in contracts and other actions.

Corporations include for-profit, limited liability, and nonprofit structures. These formations shield investors and other significant individuals such as board members from the legal liability they might face in court as a single person.

As I recently wrote inJacobin, many grassroots organizations — including those that supported Bernie Sanders — are legally considered corporations, though they don’t operate under the profit motive. Many nonprofits that engage in political action are classified as 501c4 corporations. No socialist should view the class nature of a grassroots 501c4 as the same as Amazon or Walmart simply because all are corporations, obviously. ...
Read full report at Jacobin

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