A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.
How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.
In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.
The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.
Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.
From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:
“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.
• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.
• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.
Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”
So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”
The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”