Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The stories are terrifying. Monsters who will haunt your every waking hour. Blood-sucking vampires. Zombies run amok. Freddie Krueger and Jason in a hockey mask. On every screen. 24. 7. 365.
Just the latest wave of Hollywood Halloween fare? Nope. I'm of course referring to the barrage of negative political TV attack ads, unleashed, Godzilla-like, by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2010 case Citizen United versus the Federal Elections Commission. In it, the court found, due to its reading, disputed by some, of the First Amendment, the government can't restrict independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
To see the real-life impact, look no further than the 4th District Congressional race between longtime Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson and newcomer Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs. If you dare catch a glimpse of the ubiquitous TV ads, you'll see nightmarish versions of each candidate, in large part courtesy of those independent groups that are supposed to be unaffiliated and not coordinating with the campaigns.
With the requisite ominous, creepy music in the background, viewers are subjected to a relentless stream of 30-second "Shining" moments. "Here's Johnny!"
Matheson comes off as a ghoulish pawn of a Darth Vaderesque Barack Obama, backing Obamacare, bailouts — a dangerous liberal agenda. Love is a slasher who will slice spending on everything from students loans to social security. Could the spots be true? Who knows? With wave after wave of new ads coming with the speed and intensity of a fire-hose, who has time to check?
In the past, each campaign could at least in theory be held accountable for brutal mistruths and bold exaggerations. But thanks to the new campaign landscape created by Citizens United, we often have no idea just who created the ads or who is paying for them.
Those super political action committees, or super PACs, are pouring millions, perhaps unprecedented amounts, into this election and the few remaining truly competitive seats in Congress, those that haven't been gerrymandered into safe districts for one party or the other.
After the dust settles, the ballots are counted and everyone has finished pummeling each other into bloody pulps, do you think the next Congress will be able to get along and compromise better than the last?
Just this week, Olene Walker, Utah's sage and reasonable former governor, who is forming a new political institute at Weber State, lamented where modern politics has gone, born in the USA and spreading to Utah.
Both 4th district candidates, she says, are "good people. I admire them both." But she says, thanks to the ads "you think of the negatives rather than the positives." The state's first female governor, a Republican, says the ruling "has created a sense of irresponsibility because (the super PACs) can say anything they want and not be held accountable. And the candidates will say, 'We had no part of it. They do what they want to do.' "
Her successor, former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., echoed those sentiments in comments at an event just last month, saying "super PACs are supporting divide and conquer messages."
National polls are showing a strong public distaste for the ruling, and now there are rumblings of an effort to repeal Citizens United. But once these things get going, they're often tough to stop.
As Dr. Frankenstein screamed: "It's Alive!"