Three years ago this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about the influence of wealthy donors in our elections. It wasn’t the well-known (and much-criticized) Citizens United case, but the arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ultimately explain what’s wrong with how we treat the influence of money in politics.
Prior to McCutcheon v. FEC, no one contributor could give more than $125,000 in total campaign contributions to federal candidates. Very few Americans can even consider contributing more than $125,000 to politicians. Yet in 2013, Shaun McCutcheon, a coal industry CEO, challenged the law as violating his “freedom of speech.”
During the Supreme Court argument for McCutcheon, the lawyers for the federal agency that enforces political spending limits (the Federal Election Commission) had a problem. The obvious reason for the per-person $125,000 limit was that no one person should have too much influence over elected officials. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal” (people of color and women came later) and links this equality to “the consent of the governed.” Limiting total contributions would prevent gross inequalities of influence.
But the lawyers for the FEC weren’t allowed to say that. In fact, the FEC could never use the idea of political equality to justify political spending limits.
Under Supreme Court precedent, “equality” is a dirty word when we talk about how candidates and campaigns are funded. The only justification that the FEC could cite for this overall contribution limit was preventing “corruption.”
Corruption is not the only problem though. Having big money in politics also threatens political equality — the idea that each person is equally valued and has an equal say in our democracy. Political equality lies behind the Court’s decisions striking down poll taxes, and gave us the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Political equality also means that our democratic system should not give some people more influence based on the size of their wallet. To many of us, that’s obvious. Yet under the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the very notion of political equality was made “off limits” for legal arguments in campaign finance cases. The Supreme Court believes political equality can never be more valuable than a wealthy donor’s desire to give unlimited money to politicians.
Since the FEC couldn’t talk about political equality three years ago, let’s talk about it today. Wealthy funders have more access to politicians, and therefore more voice in our democracy, than the vast majority can hope to possess. Money also shapes who can run for office: Wealthy people with broad donor networks are much more likely to succeed than those without, creating a discriminatory “wealth primary” in which rich funders pre-filter candidates before the public gets to vote.
Economic inequality contributes to political inequality. The average total wealth of the top 10 percent of families is $4 million, compared with just $36,000 for those in the 26th to 50th percentiles. And the wealth of families in the bottom quarter is negative — on average about $13,000 in debt. That economic inequality translates to political inequality, because people who struggle to pay their bills can’t fully participate in money-based politics.
And political inequality contributes to economic inequality. Economic policies prioritized by ordinary Americans have been ignored. For example, the public generally supports various policies designed to reduce inequality and strengthen economic opportunity. Wealthy funders usually don’t. Examples include raising the minimum wage, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing generous unemployment benefits and directly creating jobs. Despite the popularity of these policies among average Americans, Congress refuses to act. That’s not surprising: A 2014 study demonstrated low- and middle-income Americans have virtually no influence on which policies are adopted.
When we do not value political equality, we also put people of color at a systemic disadvantage. Studies have shown that black representatives are more responsive, engaged and promote better policies for black constituents than white representatives. However, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, and particularly the wealthiest 1 percent, are almost entirely white. When people of color lack the funds to run for office, give candidates critical early fundraising support, or influence officials once in office, their voices are not heard. Unfortunately, we continue to perpetuate systemic economic inequality today, which has contributed to the extreme lack of representation for people of color on the federal and local levels. In turn, big money interest in politics ends up blocking policies that would advance racial equity for people of color in the United States.
Political equality is a core principle of democracy. The fact that the Supreme Court wouldn’t even consider discussion of political equality in McCutcheon illustrates how far we have strayed from the idea that “all men are created equal.” We can start to repair our democracy by enacting a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley, Citizens United and McCutcheon, restore the goal of political equality and give ordinary Americans an equal voice in our democracy.