Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Fooling with Democracy
Here is the April installment of my monthly piece for the Deming Headlight. It appeared in the paper on April 10.
Perhaps we should change Election Day to April 1.
In a stunning follow-up to its 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down more limits on private funding of election campaigns this month. The rulings were announced on April 2, one day after April Fool’s Day and certainly no prank.
The case of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission was about aggregate limits on campaign funding – the total amount an individual may spend during an election cycle. In the current cycle, by law you can spend $123,200 on candidates, national party committees, and certain political committees; with a limit of $2,600 to specific federal candidates, and a total limit of $48,600 on direct contributions to candidates.
These limits date back to the Watergate scandal that engulfed the presidency of Richard Nixon. To fight corruption, these aggregate limits were enacted in 1974 and survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1976. The limits were later indexed to inflation in 2002.
In our era, the Supreme Court is rolling back limits on private funding of campaigns. Citizens United rolled back bans on corporations and organizations from using company funds for direct advocacy, and McCutcheon rolled back aggregate individual limits. It won’t stop there. Justice Clarence Thomas complained that “limiting the amount of money a person may give to a candidate does impose a direct restraint on his political communication.” There is explicit support on that bench for doing away with any limits on campaign spending.
The rationale is that spending money is equivalent to speech, and therefore it is “free speech” for a billionaire to bankroll campaigns and dominate the available media. What this means for the rest of us is a politics further dominated by wealthy individuals and corporations.
Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, we do well to remember that this is a political struggle that has been going on since the founding of the United States. It is a struggle between the conflicting ideals of political democracy (rule by people) and plutocracy (rule by wealth). The struggle is not hidden and was once written about in plain language without embarrassment.
James Madison, in an essay recorded as Number 10 in the Federalist Papers, acknowledges class conflict in the year 1787, writing, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Madison, however, was no communist. His purpose was to argue that government must preserve these inequalities, to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” as he put it in a debate that year. For him and many of the other founders of the United States, political democracy was something dangerous, noted for its “leveling tendencies” and its vulnerability to “unruly” passions.
John Jay, another of our founders and our first Chief Justice, was even more explicit: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” Chief Justice John Roberts may well concur. This idea is very much in practice in our politics today, as the way is cleared for lobbyists, political action committees, corporations, and wealthy individual donors at the same time that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down and new restrictions on voting are enacted.
The purpose of political democracy is precisely that “leveling tendency,” for people to share power and fight for their social and economic interests. The struggle for political democracy in America is ongoing, and one side is highly organized, well funded, and effective. Plutocracy is winning.