Democracy for sale: The high court opens the campaign-cash floodgates

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Thursday's landmark decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission reversed a long-standing trend toward more representative elections in the United States.

Across the centuries America's politics have become more open to participation by nonproperty-holding males, people of color and women. The challenge for modern times was the disproportionate influence of money on elections. How is one-person, one-vote democracy made real? How does the vote of the American earning $50,000 count as much as that of an executive or banker who takes home a compensation package in the millions?

The answer was limits on campaign contributions from companies, banks, unions and other powerful entities. These laws came about after the Watergate scandal and included collaborative efforts like the one led by the Senate's most liberal Democratic member, Russ Feingold, and the conservative Republican presidential candidate of 2008, John McCain.

The Supreme Court's stunning 5-4 decision threw out this bipartisan bid to level the election playing field. It said that companies, unions, banks and investment houses could put as much money into candidates' political campaigns as they liked -- all ostensibly in the name of free speech.

The absurdity of this philosophy and the five justices' bias toward those with access to big money is there for all to see. The court wants us to believe that, in terms of giving money to a candidate, a Pittsburgh schoolteacher, for instance, can have as much influence in terms of free speech on the outcome of an election as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America or the United Steelworkers.

Supreme Court decisions are not supposed to be made on the basis of political party, but it is no coincidence that all five justices in the majority were named by Republican presidents. Republicans do far better than Democrats in collecting contributions from the corporate and financial worlds, while the Democrats are better at raking it in from unions (whose pockets are not as deep as GOP benefactors).

So where are average Americans left in terms of voting for candidates without succumbing to the undue influence of big campaign donors? The first line of defense is partly up to the media. It becomes much more important than ever for the press to dig out assiduously and make public where candidates get their money. Second, if a person is a member or shareholder of an organization that is making big campaign contributions, it is vital to know to whom, how much and why. Third, it becomes more necessary to look with great skepticism on the claims that candidates make in commercials, mailings or phone messages in response to big-donor money.

The most terrifying aspect of this decision is the increased power it gives lobbyists over candidates. Their new ability to say, if you don't vote our way we will bury you with contributions to the opposition, could extinguish the notion of government "for the people" and give rise to government for those who prey on the people.


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