Thirty years from now – when your grandchildren are working at the ripe old age of 7 and sucking down huge gulps of coal-ash polluted water on their 5 minute lunch break – you can tell them that today, April 2nd of 2014, was the day the Supreme Court finally put Democracy out of its misery. In a 5-4 decision on McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that limits to the total amount of money
wealthy donors could contribute to all candidates, committees, and political parties were unconstitutional.
Previously, individuals could only donate a total of $48,600 to all federal candidates every two years, and $74,600 to political party committees in that same time period. But these limits on campaign donations violated the “First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them,” according to Chief Justice John Roberts.
There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.
Unfortunately, the rest of us no longer have as much of that right as the wealthy. I’m not just saying that to be sarcastic or exaggerate; that’s a legitimate statement. In fact, it’s now law in our country, according to the logic of the Supreme Court.
In the now infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court allowed corporations and unions to independently spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The decision was based on the argument that money equals free speech. If that is true, then consider this proof:
Money = Free Speech
Most Of Us Have < Money Than The Wealthy
Most Of Us Have < Free Speech Than The Wealthy
To be clear, the McCutcheon ruling does not increase the amount an individual can give to a candidate or party. It allows them to donate to as many candidates and political parties they want each election cycle. But how on earth is the average voter to compete with those who can donate vast amounts of money to campaigns across the country?
The way Roberts described the situation would make one think that there was some great barrier preventing big money from infiltrating politics. But the 2012 election was the most expensive in U.S history, topping out at about $5.8 billion. And this years midterm election spending is set to blow away campaign spending records, with outside groups already contributing $36.7 million (3 times as much as 2010).
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, only 600 people hit the maximum donation limit to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. They must have hit it pretty hard, because Roberts and the other conservative justices found those limits to be an egregious violation of the Constitutional rights of .000002% of the population. Which begs the question: whose First Amendment rights is the Supreme Court trying to protect?
Perhaps the answer to that question was best explained by the president of the public interest group Democracy 21, Fred Wertheimer, when he said that the Supreme Court:
…re-created the system of legalized bribery today that existed during the Watergate days.
This is certainly not the end of the assault on campaign finance regulation. Foes of regulation smell blood in the water, and will undoubtedly return to deliver the coup-de-grace. Even today, the more conservative members of the court were eager to go in for the kill. Justice Clarence Thomas believes there should be no difference in the regulation of spending and contributions, stating:
This case represents yet another missed opportunity to right the course of our campaign finance jurisprudence by restoring a standard that is faithful to the First Amendment.
Prepare for a flood of money even bigger than we are currently accustomed. Now that the wealthy can legally buy politicians, all bets are off… unless you’re rich, of course.
Today’s decision, in and of itself, may not be a knockout punch to democracy. But the ref is getting ready to ring the bell. And when he does: ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee!