The Supreme Court will soon decide whether individuals can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns and parties. Those on the left have loudly criticized the fact that this all-important restriction is even being debated, saying that it “could completely derail America.” Meanwhile, those on the right have claimed that such restrictions infringe the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Both of these claims are misguided; free speech is supposed to help democracy, while unlimited donations means you can use wealth to get political clout, completely contradicting the idea of democracy. At the same time, the left must understand that this decision won’t kill our democracy – It is already dead.
What is “Democracy?”
If you think democracy is just being able to vote, even then, we only have a weak democracy. Many states have passed restrictive voter ID laws after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which prevents minorities, the poor, and the old from voting. In a nation where 1 in 3 black men go to prison, it’s even more striking that some states don’t allow felons to vote, something Greg Palast argues swung the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election.
If you believe that democracy is more than voting – if democracy means citizens being empowered, active, and informed participants – then the answer is a resounding NO. There’s widespread (justified) cynicism that people have any control over government. It’s no surprise voter turnout is so low in America. Just 5% of Americans approve of Congress, while a majority, 60%, would favor firing every Congress member. Yet, last election cycle, more than 90% of Congresspeople ended up getting re-elected. People are asking a legitimate question: Do we even matter? Increasingly, that’s a no.
To explain this, let’s first look at the founding of the nation and particularly, the clear intentions of the Founding Fathers.
The Founders Hated Democracy
James Madison said that the role of government is to “protect the minority of the opulent from the majority.” Property rights had to be protected, he claimed. This has simple, but significant, implications.
As noted Justice Louis Brandeis said, “we may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Aristotle understood this, and proposed that democracy could flourish with redistribution. Madison concluded that we must scrap democracy to protect “propertied interests.” To claim that our government is democratic undermines the intellect and ability of our Founders to get what they wanted, however depraved it was.
Property Rights Must Be Protected?
The defense of property rights is and has indeed been a euphemism to justify monstrous inequality. In Madison’s time, “property rights” meant the right to own and sell slaves. The Constitution he wrote protected the institution. We eventually abolished slavery because we understood that property rights weren’t sacrosanct; when they interfere with more important rights, they can be violated. Property rights are not more important than someone’s right to his own livelihood, and hopefully, we’ll understand (we haven’t yet) that property rights are not more important than someone’s right to food.
What Did the Founders Want?
A brief look at the structure of government they created answer this. The House can gerrymander districts so that one party wins the majority of the votes, while another party wins a majority of representatives. The Senate, the upper chamber of Congress, weighs every state equally regardless of population, giving some a larger say than others. Until 1913, it wasn’t even elected directly by people. The President would be elected via the Electoral College, a system that’s given us three Presidents who lost the popular vote. The Supreme Court is then appointed by the President. No branch had legitimate democratic influence.
Ben Franklin answered this question by saying, “a republic, if you can keep it.” But the real intentions of the Founders are better summed up by the first Chief Justice John Jay: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” The Founders wanted and created a plutocracy, and we’ve “kept it.”
We Have a Plutocracy, Plain and Simple
As Larry Bartels showed, the bottom half of society doesn’t have any influence on policy. Evidence bears this conclusion out. While the rich are most worried about the deficit, most people are concerned about unemployment, and would support a federal jobs creation program. Lo and behold, public sector jobs have been cut, while we’ve had a “sequester” to cut the deficit; the “sequester” not only hurt the poor, but also the economy, according to the IMF. Those who suffered the brunt of the recession now have to suffer more because those who precipitated the crisis got bailed out with our money.
Our Rigged Elections
This isn’t surprising, given the Founders’ intentions and our election system. Being largely dominated by advertising and money from billionaires’ super PACs, real political information is scarce. Moreover, we’re essentially limited to 2 parties, who raise the most money and are beholden to corporate interests. As Lawrence Lessig puts it, “to be able to run in the voting election, one must do extremely well in the ‘money election.'” Just 0.06% of the population contributes over $200 in political campaigns, which amounts to almost two-thirds of the total money raised; this small minority effectively controls policy. After elections, the super-rich fund groups who draft bills and pressure Congresspeople to get them passed. The results are striking.
What Does This Mean?
Large companies in the pharmaceutical industry, a huge funder of lobbyists and political campaigns, are allowed to charge consumers high prices even though their research is largely funded by the taxpayer. Regulations have become useless, as large corporations write their own regulations, especially in the banking industry, the largest source of money in politics. The FDA is similarly toothless, as food companies routinely contaminate our food supply without consequence. The EPA overlooks pollution from large oil companies, sets low environmental standards for coal companies, and has prohibited itself from regulating fracking. The choice we have is not between more regulations (liberals?) or less regulations (conservatives?), but between regulations for corporations or for the people.
Why Does This Matter?
Once we understand the plutocratic nature of our “democracy,” it becomes clear why people are cynical, why we disapprove of government, and why we think we’re powerless. There are concrete reasons that we spend over $1 trillion on the military and another $228 billion on imprisoning people, and yet claim that there isn’t enough money for healthcare, education, food stamps, or employment programs. Money controls governments, and as the 99%’s income share drops due to stagnating real wages, what we say increasingly doesn’t matter.