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Socialists and Super PACs

Socialists need to understand the class antagonisms and nuances of campaign finance law.

Jamaal Bowman, the presumptive Democratic nominee for New York's 16th congressional district, greets supporters on June 23, 2020 in Yonkers, New York. His successful campaign against incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel benefited from a super PAC intervention on his behalf from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party.(Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

Last May, Politico reported 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 in Jacobin, 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.

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’ critics would be more concerned if the organization’s super PAC took donations from, say, Jeff Bezos than a left-wing 501c4 nonprofit. Sunrise Movement’s tweets included 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.

A stark difference between 501c4s and super PACs is the latter has to report its donors. If Justice Democrats’ super PAC took business and big donor money, we’d all find out eventually. Despite their reputation, super PACs actually do have to reveal all their donors, unlike 501c4s. Confusion of these two types of organizations and weak regulation obscures from the public the meaningful differences. In the Bowman race, the Democratic Majority for Israel’s PAC, which has a 501c4 using the same name, took money from a Republican-leaning super PAC to support Eliot Engel. This transfer between two forces is only partially understood by the public because PACs must reveal spending and donors.

Such public information could conceivably make it possible for progressive groups taking donations from for-profit corporations and their executives to suffer backlash — but this is no guarantee. While sunlight is wonderful, it sometimes only reveals the extent of the wealthy’s power but does nothing to curtail it.

But transparency is not why donors and political actors across the political spectrum flock to independent expenditures. In fact, 501c4s only since 2018 have to reveal a minor portion of their politically oriented donors. Political forces use super PACs for two reasons. For one, 501c4s cannot spend a majority of their program expenditure on political action. The second — and interrelated — is avoiding campaign finance limits. If you want a robust program that works, the spending limits and contribution limits make super PACs incredibly helpful in spending on behalf of a candidate. When spending in politics even among the left electoral projects is in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, avoiding barriers is logical if you want to build power and win.

Super PACs in the Popular Imagination and Reality

Super PACs loom large in the popular imagination because they symbolize the kind of unlimited spending that progressives rightly detest. This power for unlimited spending, legally, is available to everyone, but the ability to spend in the millions is only possible for the very wealthy and big business (and some labor unions).

Super PAC spending, largely backed by the rich, has been in the tens of millions, in just the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Joe Biden’s super PAC for the Iowa caucus that spent $3.8 million was financed by real estate and finance interests. Persist PAC, the pro–Elizabeth Warren super PAC, spent $14.7 million, and 97 percent came from one affluent doctor.

But such infrastructure of independent expenditures is not solely reserved for the ruling class. In fact, many progressive groups also used it to support Sanders’s presidential race. Most notably, a coalition called People Power for Bernie was formed by national groups such as the Center for Popular Democracy Action, Democratic Socialists of America, Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America, People’s Action, Sunrise Movement, and several regional organizations.

Biden noted this independent expenditure in a debate with Sanders, arguing Sanders was enjoying the support of super PACs just as Biden was. While Sanders rightfully denied being supported by a super PAC such as the corporate-backed one supporting Biden, he was being backed by independent expenditure–only committees tied to a 501c4 — organizations not funded by the billionaires Sanders rails against, but by working-class members and small donors.

Sanders was not endorsed by wealthy donors, inundating voters with ads and mailers the way typical campaigns do. People Power for Bernie had a large field component instead. Biden had a point, though. There was no legal difference in the structures independently backing Sanders than the ones supporting Biden or any other Democrat. But Biden’s argument lacks an analysis of democratic accountability and the class nature of the differences between who supported him and Sanders.

Unlike the uber-rich backing other candidates, all of Sanders’s coalition was membership-based and accountable to their constituents to varying degrees. Ryan Greenwood, People’s Action’s director of movement politics, explains, “People’s Action is accountable to leading activists within the multiracial working class. And those aren’t just words — it’s actually baked into our structure.”

Two-thirds of the People’s Action board must represent its regional affiliate groups that are led by a diverse group of workers and movements for social justice. People’s Action and the other partners have public, democratic checks. Their endorsements and actions reflect those, and their decisions represent the collective action of working people.

Similarly, look at who supported Sanders versus who supported his opponents. Grassroots groups are more diverse than the wealthier, whiter mega-donors. And despite the obvious problems with super PACs, it is possible to imagine a grassroots organization with a super PAC that creates internal mechanisms that allow its membership to decide how best to collectively endorse and support candidates (albeit independently of those campaigns to obey the law, obviously).

Socialists and liberals both view super PACs as bad because we see unlimited spending in our political process as detrimental to democracy. We both agree that concentrated political spending gives outside power and influence to a handful of wealthy individuals. Long term, however, socialists want to eliminate business influence from electoral politics altogether. Liberals do not.

Super PACs are deeply flawed institutions that favor the wealthy even if they are used by our friends. They shouldn’t exist. But socialists need to pay close attention to the class makeup of super PAC funders. Absent some mechanism of democratic control dictating the kinds of organizations that can and cannot give to progressive super PACS, there is nothing stopping progressive organizations from taking big donor money and being controlled by those interests. That’s why we need to deepen membership-based funding and decision-making in progressive groups’ electoral programs.

We need to continue to make it politically impossible for our allies to take private business’s donations and continue to push for campaign finance reform to make our electoral system fairer. Sanders, like many, is a proponent of publicly financed elections. These programs vary from place to place, but use public funds to amplify smaller contributions to weaken the influence of big money and can provide candidates with alternate collective resources to run viable campaigns. These additional funds especially help women/nonbinary people, people of color, and working-class candidates often locked out of big donor networks.

Super PACs are here to stay for the near future. Progressive and socialist groups likely will continue to use independent expenditure–only structures in their electoral action. It is important socialists understand the nuances behind super PACs, how they function, and how different class interests affect them. Despite their being used almost entirely as a tool of the ruling class, it isn’t impossible to conceive of inserting some level of democratic accountability behind a progressive group’s super PAC. Imagine, for instance, a democratic labor union whose membership endorses and controls political spending. Still, such structures overwhelmingly benefit the super-wealthy. If we want a world without super PACs, the Left needs to have the analysis to understand how they function. With those tools, we can build a better political system for the future.