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How the Wealthy Wage War on Democracy Itself

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Posted on Oct 23, 2013
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By Sonali Kolhatkar

If the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling was not devastating enough for American democracy, a new case could wipe away any remaining vestige of election integrity. The nation’s highest court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission this month. If the court rules in favor of Alabama mining CEO Shaun McCutcheon, rich Americans could make unlimited amounts of campaign contributions directly to political candidates and parties. Currently, the federal limit for individual contributions is $123,000 over two years, a figure that the majority of Americans don’t even earn as basic income during that time span.

The conservative National Review recently published a critique of what author Ammon Simon called “the Left’s fear tactics” over sounding the alarm on this new potential deregulation of money in elections. Simon begins by making the case that money does not in fact influence elections, citing several questionable studies that, according to him, prove “the evidence just doesn’t lend itself to the ‘legalized corruption’ theme.”

But he then contradictorily laments “the misguided belief that we can regulate away money’s influence over the political system.” The conservative admiringly points out that, “Historically, campaign-finance laws have always been undermined by innovative workarounds.”

Simon’s argument therefore could be summarized thus: Rich people should be able to influence democracy simply because they are rich, but don’t worry, their money doesn’t have any effect. But if you do try to curb the influence they say they don’t have they will simply acquire it by other means so just give up trying.

In an interview about McCutcheon v. FEC, University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen told me, “The argument that it’s a violation of my free speech rights if the government restricts in any way the way I spend my money on campaigns has a kind of curious logic to it. There’s a kernel of truth to it, that when we spend money we’re engaging in a form of speech. But when you don’t take the real world into consideration, you don’t realize the incredible disparities in wealth will undermine anything approaching a democratic political sphere. We need to reframe this not as a ‘free speech’ case but as a ‘big money’ case.”

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That the rich influence elections with their money is as obvious to most of us as the fact that rich people game the justice system by being able to hire the best lawyers, or that rich people are healthier because they can buy the best food and health care.

Many examples of big money’s influence on politics abound, one of which is California’s attempt at labeling genetically modified organisms last year. While Proposition 37 had the backing of 60 percent of voters, according to polls taken early in the election season, the last-minute infusion of huge sums of money by corporate food conglomerates like Monsanto, PepsiCo and Hershey’s shifted the balance of voters who were originally in favor of the proposition.

By the time of the election, the “No on 37” vote had gathered $45 million to spend on advertising, while the “Yes” campaign had brought in only about $7.3 million. The result should come as no surprise. With a 53 to 47 percent margin, California voters walked away from an opportunity to become the first state in the nation to label GMOs.

Leading media reformist and Nation magazine correspondent John Nichols has co-authored a new book with his longtime colleague Bob McChesney called “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America.” In an interview about the book, Nichols told me, “More than half a billion dollars was spent on California’s initiatives [in 2012] and so this state saw ‘Dollarocracy’ on steroids. Money flowed into this state and it defined elections.”

Another example of the corrupting influence of money in California’s elections—even before the Citizens United decision—that had a greater human impact, particularly on poor communities of color, was the failure of a 2004 ballot measure to amend the state’s notorious Three Strikes law. Proposition 66, if passed, would have eased some of the harshest sentencing aspects of the original 1994 law that sentenced third-time felons to a minimum of 25 years to life, no matter how minor that third infraction. The law affects black and brown communities disproportionately. Six months before the election, polls found that 76 percent of likely voters favored the amendment, but after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent $2 million of his own money fighting the measure, opinions shifted and the measure narrowly lost.

In “Dollarocracy,” Nichols and McChesney write about the original framework that the Citizens United ruling was based on, authored by the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. McChesney explained to me that Powell, when he was a leading corporate attorney representing the tobacco industry, was commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce to write a short memo on “what business and wealthy Americans can do to take back the government.” He elaborated, “Powell laid out a game plan, a battle plan of strategy and tactics of how the government could be brought back under business control.” Powell’s fantasy of campaign finance deregulation was eventually taken up by Justice John Roberts, who then led the court in 2010 to the Citizens United decision.


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