In 1971, before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Lewis F. Powell Jr. penned a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocating a comprehensive strategy in favor of corporate interests. Powell wrote, “Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”
In last week’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission , the Supreme Court was not a mere instrument so much as a blowtorch, searing a hole in the fabric of our fragile democracy.
This predictable decision from the 1 Percent Court to repeal federal limits on overall individual campaign contributions overturns nearly 40 years of campaign finance law.
It also completes a trifecta of rulings that started in 1976 with Buckley v. Valeo, and the Midas touch of judicial malpractice, turning money into speech. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent to McCutcheon, taken together with the 2010 ruling in Citizens United, “today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
This, foreshadowed in Powell’s decades-old memo, has always been the right’s plan — to shift the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Put it this way: If the limit hadn’t existed in 2012, the 1,219 biggest donors could have given more money than over 4 million small donors to the Obama and Romney campaigns — combined.
But McCutcheon was not the only body blow to our democracy, in what was possibly the worst week in the history of campaign finance reform.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) let his proposal for publicly financed statewide elections die after years of promises to restore the public trust. In a state that’s often a laboratory of democracy, the governor has agreed to what is little more than a clinical trial — a single comptroller’s race this year — that some experts claim is “designed to fail.”
The American experiment seems to be run by a smaller and smaller control group as billionaires — like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson — get expanding seats at the shrinking political table.
NASCAR drivers wear the corporate logos of their sponsors on their suits. The justices who sided with plutocracy ought to wear sponsorship logos on their robes, too.
Conversations about court rulings and policy proposals can obscure what’s really at stake: the well-being of the American people. The Court and Cuomo gave the 1 percent even more opportunities to, effectively, buy the kind of access to elected officials that most voters and small donors could never dream of. The weakening of campaign finance laws tracks with the widening income gap, as the wealthiest have secured policies, from lower taxes to deregulation — that enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else.
This, to paraphrase Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), is why the system is rigged. Metastasizing money drowns out the voices of actual Americans, and suffocates policies such as raising the minimum wage and equal pay that would benefit workers. It also skews the playing field, not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between male and female candidates.
We live in a world where elected officials care less about checks and balances and more about their checkbooks and balance sheets. Where fundraising is more important than legislating. Where public policy is auctioned off to the highest bidder.
That’s why getting money out of politics is not a partisan issue. According to Gallup, nearly eight out of 10 Americans think campaigns should be limited in what they can raise and spend, while a 2012 CBS poll shows that about two-thirds of Americans believe in limiting individual campaign contributions.
Hopefully, popular outrage will boost the pressure for reform; there has already been a sharp increase in grassroots action. In the hours and days after the ruling, coalitions such as Public Citizen have mobilized thousands of people in 140 demonstrations across 38 states to protest the McCutcheon ruling. Nearly 500 local governments and 16 states and the District have called for a constitutional amendment to wrest our elections back from the elite. Move to Amend, which supports a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and McCutcheon, and end the fiction that corporations are people and money equals speech, already has over 300,000 members.
A resolution from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — with a House companion introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — calling for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to fully regulate campaign contributions, and to encourage states to regulate and limit campaign spending, already had 29 co-sponsors and picked up 3 more on the day the Roberts Court announced its decision. Citizens in New York, who are furious at Cuomo for failing to enact reform, are renewing the drive to hold him accountable for his actions. And even while pushing for a constitutional amendment — an uphill battle —supporters of clean elections in Congress and outside are fighting for increased disclosure and public financing of elections.
The all-out assault against campaign finance reform, on the heels of the Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder , is just one more example of our democratic system in crisis. “Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts,” my Nation colleague Ari Berman recently wrote, “the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.” But the fear of democracy’s premature death doesn’t look like it’s silencing people; instead, it is inspiring a renewed commitment to fight for its survival.
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