How Ronald Reagan and the Supreme Court Turned American Politics Into a Cesspool
The dominating significance of the mid-term American legislative elections just finished has been the occasion’s dramatic confirmation of the corruption of the American electoral system. This has two elements, the first being its money corruption, unprecedented in American history, and without parallel in the history of major modern western democracies. How can Americans get out of this terrible situation, which threatens to become the permanent condition of American electoral politics?
The second significance of this election has been the debasement of debate to a level of vulgarity, misinformation and ignorance that, while not unprecedented in American political history, certainly attained new depths and extent.
This disastrous state of affairs is the product of two Supreme Court decisions and before that, of the repeal under the Reagan Administration, of the provision in the Federal Communications Act of 1934, stipulating the public service obligations of radio (and subsequently, of television) broadcasters in exchange for the government’s concession to them of free use in their businesses of the public airways.
These rules required broadcasters to provide “public interest” programming, including the coverage of electoral campaigns for public office and the independent examination of public issues. The termination of these requirements made possible the wave of demagogic and partisan right-wing “talk radio” that since has plagued American broadcasting and muddied American electoral politics.
Those readers old enough to remember the radio and early television broadcasting of pre-Reagan America will recall the non-partisan news reports and summaries provided by the national networks and by local stations in the United States. There were, of course, popular news commentators professing strong or idiosyncratic views as well, but the industry assured that a variety of responsible opinions were expressed, and that blatant falsehood was banned or corrected.
The two Supreme Court decisions were “Buckley v. Valeo” in 1976 and “Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission” in 2010. Jointly, they have transformed the nature of the American political campaign, and indeed the nature of American national politics. This resulted from the nature and characteristics of mass communications in the United States and the fact that broadcasting has from the beginning been all but totally a commercial undertaking (unlike the state broadcasters in Canada and Britain, and nearly all of Europe).
The two decisions turned political contests into competitions in campaign advertising expenditure on television and radio. The election just ended caused every American linked to the internet to be bombarded by thousands (or what seemed tens of thousands) of political messages pleading for campaign money and listing the enormous (naturally) sums pouring into the coffers of the enemy.
Previously the American campaign first concerned the candidate and the nature of his or her political platform. Friends and supporters could, of course, contribute to campaign funds and expenditures, but these contributions were limited by law in scale and nature. No overt connection was allowed between businesses or industries and major political candidates, since this would have implied that the candidate represented “special interests” rather than the general interest.
The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission verdict is well known and remains highly controversial since it rendered impossible the imposition of legal limits on political campaign spending, ruling that electoral spending is an exercise in constitutionally-protected free speech. Moreover, it adjudged commercial corporations as legal citizens, in electoral matters the equivalent of persons.
The Court’s prohibition of legislation imposing such spending limits is responsible for the enormous tides of money that has swept over recent America national elections. This mid-term election campaign — of minor importance by comparison to the presidential election every four years, which not only can but often does change the entire ruling apparatus of the executive arm of the American government, and the political character of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well (since the entire House and one-third of the Senate must be elected or reelected in every mid-term, as well as presidential, vote). The election just ended began with a total campaign commitment by the contending parties and their corporate supporters of four billion dollars — and it went up from there.
As journalists have noted, this was 10 times the sum the U.S. government committed to combat the Ebola epidemic worldwide. Some quarter of this total consisted of direct campaign contributions to the candidates and their staffs (nearly always provided by Washington research institutes, business corporations, or other groups with direct commercial interests in future legislation, or by private or public groups lobbying in support of issues which they consider matters of public concern).
The American government thus is up for sale every four years, and an important part of it every two years. The members of Congress and some members of the Senate, with honorable exceptions, are up for sale every two years. The most important political interest group regularly buying on this market, other than the gun lobby, is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is so successful that Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year told followers in Israel that he was no longer interested in persuading President Barack Obama of his views because he, Netanyahu, controlled the American Congress.
The result of these developments during the past 40 years has been the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy, which is to say a state governed by its wealthiest class. No one in America today doubts it. This is not a constitutional issue, as that document imposes age, citizenship, and residence qualifications on candidates for election to federal office, but relies upon the judgment of the citizenry to draw its own conclusions regarding a candidate’s character and wisdom — assuming that it regards these as important.
It is the Supreme Court that has placed the United States in this position, and while the Court can and has implicitly reversed decisions, and can be overruled by legislation in certain cases or by Constitutional Amendment, it is difficult to see either course as relevant or feasible in this situation, whose gravity is very widely accepted, but whose solution seems remote, given the society which the United States has become.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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