WASHINGTON--Imagine an election in a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction. Wouldn't many people here condescendingly tut-tut such a country's "poorly developed" sense of democracy and the inadequacy of its political system?
That, of course, is what is going on in our country as you read this. If you travel any place where there is a contested race for the House or Senate, you are bombarded with attack ads, almost all against Democrats, paid for by groups that do not have to reveal where their money comes from.
What we do know from enterprising journalism and the limited disclosure the law requires is that much of this money is donated in large sums from a rather small number of wealthy individuals.
And The New York Times reported last Friday that among the 10 top-spending organizations this year, five are Republican-oriented shadow groups. Another four are the formal party committees for House and Senate candidates. One is a union.
This is a huge, historic deal, yet many in the media have treated the spending avalanche as a normal political story and arguments about its dangers as partisan Democratic whining.
Some have even maintained that money doesn't really matter in elections, which makes you wonder why people who know quite a lot about politics (one thinks of Karl Rove) have spent so much energy organizing these fundraising and advertising efforts.
The outside money should be an issue for Democrats. They ought to be asking, even more forcefully than they have been, what these secret donors expect for their money. You can be sure that the benefactors will not keep their identities hidden from the members of Congress they help elect. Only the voters will be in the dark.
Nonetheless, the partisan dimension should not distract from the larger problem facing American democracy. Secret money is dangerous. Secret money corrupts. Secret money is antithetical to the transparency that democracy requires. And concentrated money, which is what we're talking about here, buys more influence and access than small contributions.
Candidates have limits on the size of the donations they can raise and must disclose them. They are accountable for the advertisements they put on the air. But the outside groups can say whatever they want without answering for it. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent has been tireless in pointing out how many of the ads sponsored by these shadowy organizations are based on half-truths or outright lies.
It's often been said that what the Republican-leaning groups are doing now is no different from what some Democratic-friendly groups have done in the past. There's actually an important distinction. But first, let me say I didn't like it when Democrats took a step in this direction in 2004, and was critical when Harold Ickes, one of the party's seasoned operatives, organized outside money on John Kerry's behalf.
I called the move "shortsighted," and said then: "My hunch is that in the long run, the country--and, yes, especially Democrats--will regret opening a new loophole in the campaign money system." Republicans, I predicted, would "find more than enough rich people to finance groups on the Ickes model" and eventually outspend the Democrats.
But at least the 2004 Democratic money was raised under rules that required disclosure. That's why Republicans, who now complain about criticisms of their efforts, could mount their relentless attacks on the generosity of George Soros.
By contrast, much of the outside Republican money this year is being raised under a different part of the tax code (and under shamelessly loose Federal Election Commission rules), so the money coming in doesn't have to be disclosed. We also have the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which vastly increased the ability of corporations to influence elections.
If you still think this outside secret money is just the Democrats' problem, consider the views of Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a venerable business group. Kolb, who served in the Reagan administration, thinks all this secret money is bad for both democracy and business because it undermines public confidence that the government and the marketplace are on the level.
"An election is a public good, not a private exchange," he says. "If I want to buy a car from you, that's an exchange between you and me." But elections "are not a private commodity, candidates aren't private commodities."
That's right: Elections are there to be won, not bought.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group