On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the single most important campaign finance case since the Citizens United case.
Shaun McCutcheon, a billionaire from Alabama, and the Republican Party are asking the Supreme Court to strike down some of our most effective campaign contribution limits, limits that keep rich people from owning politicians.
Depending on how the Court decides McCutcheon, our democracy could continue on as is or fall further down the path towards all-out oligarchy.
But first, a little background. Believe it or not, most members of Congress actually hate raising money. Sure, they have to do it to run their campaigns every election cycle, but it’s a pretty boring, time-consuming process.
In fact, a leaked PowerPoint presentation put together by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for rookie congressman recommended that they block off around half of their 10-hour work day for different fundraising activities.
So on Wednesday, while the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the McCutcheon case, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent over his handpicked lawyer, Bobby Burchfield, to do something about this. On behalf of McConnell, Burchfield asked the Court’s nine justices to scrap all limits on the amount of donations an individual can make to candidates during an election cycle.
If the court accepts McConnell’s argument, any congressman could fund his campaign with money from one single donor, and avoid all that time spent attending dinners or making phone calls to rich people in his district. Similarly, senators could run their campaigns with just a few big donors.
In effect, McConnell asked the Court, through Burchfield, to allow mega-rich donors like Sheldon Adelson (you know, the guy who spent $150 million on behalf of Republicans last election) to have the total and unrestricted freedom to hire their own politicians.
McConnell wants the Court to take a more extreme position on campaign finance than is actually at stake in the McCutcheon case, but thanks to the Supreme Court’s doctrine of money as speech, there’s a good chance the Court could take his side. If that happens, the Court would essentially legalize campaign bribery as a subset of free speech protected under the First Amendment.
This is stupid and unnecessary. When Congress has had the chance to regulate campaign finance on its own, without interference from unelected bodies like the Supreme Court, it’s actually chosen to limit the kind of bribery that Mitch McConnell wants to unleash on our elections. The 2002 McCain-Feingold act is the most recent example of this.
And there are other solutions to the problem of fundraising besides legalizing bribery. In Maine and Arizona, for example, campaigns were almost completely publicly funded campaigns until the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the practice.
But striking down limits on individual campaign donations, like Mitch McConnell wants the Supreme Court to do, isn’t just stupid and unnecessary, it’s downright dangerous for the health of our democracy.
Money, unlike real speech, is inherently unequal. Rich people like Sheldon Adelson can spend a lot more on the candidate of their choice than average middle or working-class Americans can. This creates a situation where wealthy donors are more important to campaigns than regular donors.
At that point, there is very little separating campaign donations from the kind of outright bribery used by mafia dons. In Mitch McConnell’s dream America, candidates who receive big contributions from the Sheldon Adelson types would have a built-in incentive – an even bigger one than they have now under the Citizens United system – to push for policies that benefit their donors.
When this happens, the issues that affect average Americans – the people who can’t afford to spend tens of millions of dollars on one candidate – will be ignored.
Things wouldn’t be much different if the Court takes the less-extreme approach to campaign bribery proposed by the people arguing the McCutcheon case: unlimited total donations. If the Court allows this, wealthy donors could launder up to $3.6 million through political parties and committees, turning the candidates of their choice into personal property.
When candidates are the property of the wealthy few and do their bidding, our nation stops being a democracy reflecting the will of “We the People” and starts to become something else, a political system ultimately controlled by those at the very top.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of political system. They called it an oligarchy, which literally means government by the few. If the Supreme Court sides with Mitch McConnell, Shaun McCutcheon, or the Republican Party, and strikes down sensible limits on campaign donations, we will be one more step down the road to a government controlled by the few, the billionaire few.
And that’s a pretty terrifying idea. In The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato warned that all oligarchies eventually descend into violence and chaos because control of political institutions by the wealthy few breeds the kind of hatred that only comes from extreme inequality. Inequality in America right now is at the highest it’s ever been. And if the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutcheon, it will make things even worse.
Luckily, there is an alternative to oligarchy and the chaos that comes from it. And that alternative is a constitutional amendment declaring once and for all that money is not speech. If we want to take back our hijacked democracy from the billionaires and their lackeys in Congress, then we need to take away their lifeblood: the uncontrolled flow of money into our elections.
Go to movetoamend.org and find out what you can do to say no to the billionaires – and yes to democracy.