You may be one of those people who believe there is too much money in politics. (Polling suggests there are many such people—a vast majority of Americans, in fact.) You may believe that the larger the financial contribution, the greater the chance it will corrupt your representative in Congress, or even your president. You may believe that there are too many political advertisements on television, too many groups with blandly patriotic names trying to change your mind about energy or Medicare or national defense. You may even believe that the nation’s founders would be repelled by the idea of corporations and billionaires pouring millions of dollars into political campaigns. It is reasonable—it is quite respectable—to believe these things.
But if you are one of these people, what you believe is turning out not to matter very much.
What Jim Bopp Jr. believes is turning out to matter a whole lot more, and he believes the exact opposite. He believes in more money, bigger donations, more corporations and billionaires and outside groups making more noise, openly or anonymously. He believes, in fact, that there can be no such thing as an “outside” group in American democracy—he believes that’s the whole point of the republic.
It wasn’t so long ago that just about everyone who paid attention to how we pay for politics, whether liberal or conservative, thought Jim Bopp was nuts. They certainly thought so back when he first came storming out of the right-to-life movement in the 1980s, a no-name lawyer with a street-corner practice in Indiana swinging the First Amendment like a hatchet, striking at the Federal Election Commission, then at state government after state government—150 cases and counting—and taking his cause to the Supreme Court itself. Where others saw reasonable limits on politicking, he saw shocking suppression of freedom of speech, whether the stage was as big as a presidential campaign or as small as a student-council race at the University of California (Irvine). (He once won a case for a student candidate who’d exceeded the university’s spending limits by shelling out too much at Kinko’s.)
At the highest court in the land, standing in that deep well, with his wife and three daughters watching him, Bopp has gone four for six so far, knocking down laws and regulations that restrained money from entering politics. That record doesn’t count Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the campaign finance case he brought to the U.S. Supreme Court but didn’t get to argue in the end. That’s OK, he’ll tell you—the majority largely endorsed his vision, striking down laws that blocked corporations and unions from spending as much as they wanted to elect or defeat candidates, and paving the way for a new type of political-action committee—the super PAC. Everyone else just didn’t see what was coming as clearly as he did: The super PAC would be the overpowering new weapon for Jim Bopp’s revolution.
So given that, so far, your views have turned out not to matter much, and Jim Bopp’s have turned out to matter a great deal, it may be instructive, if you’re wondering where our politics is headed, to listen to him for a change, instead of to the mainstream media and the “reformers”—he expels the word with considerable asperity.
“We are absolutely at the tipping point,” he told me recently, with unmistakable delight, over what he believes to be the best sushi not only in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., but in the nation. “We’re in the second election cycle with super PACs, and now they’re going to equal candidate spending. Two years from now, they’ll exceed candidate spending by 50 percent. Once the Democrats realize there ain’t any going back on this, then their contributors will start realizing the only thing they can do is participate. Two years after that, it’ll be three times candidate spending.”
And Jim Bopp believes that by then—though probably before then—the incumbents, driven as they always are by a desperate desire to cling to their offices, will resort to doing what he’s wanted them to do all along. To have any chance of competing with the super PACs, they will abolish, or at least drastically raise, all contribution limits, to whichever candidate, from whatever source. And then the money will really start to pour in.
Indeed, the day before we had lunch, Illinois—which, like other states, regulates nonfederal elections—passed a new law saying that if a super PAC spends more than $250,000 in a statewide race (not much money, as these things go), the contribution limits in that race will be eliminated.“We’re in the endgame,” Bopp told me with a smile of satisfaction. “It’s already begun.”