Buying Elections—The Un-American Way

Let’s not pull punches:  the Citizen’s United decision fundamentally changes the nature of American political life and puts our vaunted democracy, no matter how poorly conducted it has always been, at death’s door.

By Charles Bayer

Last year the United States Supreme Court delivered a body blow to our  democracy. It ruled 5 to 4, in a highly charged and politically  driven decision, that corporations and labor unions were, in fact,  persons, and had the same right as do individuals to put almost  unlimited money into political campaigns without revealing the source.  The key question before the Court in the Citizens United case was  whether the guarantee of free speech specified in the First Amendment  defined money as speech. Certainly the framers of the Bill of Rights  were attempting to save this newly formed nation from the despotism in  which the King could punish the employment of any language critical of  the crown. Nowhere in the early colonial documents, however, is there  an indication that our nation’s founders were identifying money as  speech or businesses as persons.

Apart from the legal ramifications lies the question: is limitless  corporate money being poured into political campaigns healthy or  unhealthy for American democracy? It is the answer to that question  which will determine the next steps that need to be taken.

In the past few political campaigns there has emerged a new powerful  media player.  It is the TV ad.  Most American now view the candidates  through highly polished and carefully designed thirty-second pictorial  sound bites. These marvels of technology tend to aim at the lowest  common denominator.  They tell enough truth to be believable, but  enough untruth to be scandalous. No one watching them—which is almost  everybody—can come away with the slightest understanding of where the  pictured candidate really stands on issues and philosophy, or what an  opponent really holds. The most important national issues, whose  determination will set in place the country’s future, are thus  obfuscated in an effort to sell a carefully wrapped package.  And this  is where multi-billions of America’s dollars are spent.  It is  estimated that of all the money put into political campaigns, over 85%  goes to TV advertising. While there are exceptions, almost always the  winners are those who have the most to spend.  And that means  politicians are trapped into paying attention to the biggest checkbooks.

It is increasingly clear that money buys elections. While this has  been true for a long time in American politics, now, with the legal  capacity to dump unlimited anonymous dollars into electoral campaigns,  big money will increasingly control America’s future.  And that  means conservative corporate interests.  As Bob Edgar of Common Cause  puts it, “We are moving from a government of, by and for the people,  to a government of, by and for corporations.”

Since the Citizens United decision is now the law of the land, what  are the options left for the American people to correct this anti- democratic travesty?  Perhaps the first partial remedy lies with  Congress, which can circumscribe the way money is given.  Certainly  most of those in both parties would support appropriate disclosure  laws. And if unions and corporations give massive funds, the corporate  shareholders and the union members ought to have a voice in how those  funds are spent.  After all, it is their money. And then there are  laws in the several states which can modify how money is given.   Nevertheless, in the long run to save American democracy from being a  plutocracy, there may need to be a  Constitutional Amendment.  While  the Bill of Rights is sacred, particularly the First Amendment which  guarantees freedom of speech, the Citizens United decision is  egregious enough that it may ultimately be necessary to bring America  back from domination by monied interests  through a Constitutional  Amendment.  There are already several groups around the nation working  on such a proposal including The American Institute for Progressive  Democracy.

If this decision is not addressed, first legislatively and finally  constitutionally, we may kiss away what we have come to known as our  American democracy.