We are losing what’s left of our democracy.
Over the last generation, the complex interrelationship of the global economy and our tax laws has concentrated more and more of the fruits of our economy into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
As this trend has continued, another more sinister effect of wealth inequality has emerged: the growing inequality of political power.
Say what you will about wealth distribution. But no one can claim that the founders intended our republic to be the servant of the wealthiest.
The founders had in mind a government that was the servant of all the people and that was dependent on the common citizen. They recognized that we are all “created equal,” and that each of us has same political power as our neighbor. This is a beautiful ideal and we have strayed far from it.
Our elected officials, particularly those who run for positions in Washington, are no longer dependent primarily upon the voters. Instead they are dependent first upon those willing to fund or support their campaigns. Only after securing the approval of the funders can a candidate proceed to the voters.
The disproportionate power of the funders over the candidates skews the entire balance of political power toward the funders and away from the voters. Our government necessarily becomes a government that serves the interests of the funders.
Recently our Supreme Court has augmented the power of the wealthiest to corrupt our government in this way. The Court’s decision in Citizens United permits all corporations to advocate, without limit, for the election of a candidate. And the ruling in the
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McKutcheon case now allows an individual to contribute as much as $3.6 million to federal candidates and partisan election committees in any two-year election cycle.
Common sense tells us that these contributions and expenditures will turn the attention of an elected official away from his or her constituents and toward the interests of the donors. One former Republican senator had it right when he said “the access and influence accorded to large donors is inherently, endemically and hopelessly corrupting.”
But our Supreme Court sees it differently. Despite the obvious, the Court has told us that the access to officials these contributions and expenditures purchase is not corruption and the free speech rights of corporations and the wealthiest cannot be reasonably regulated, even when the lack of regulation effectively silences the voices of most.
It may feel like a hopeless task to reverse this trend, but there are a number of tactics we can use:
- Disclosure — We must enact stricter laws governing the disclosure of donors to candidates and independent campaign committees. Dark money must be eliminated.
- Independent campaign committees — These committees must be truly independent of a candidate’s campaign. Watchdog agencies must be strengthened to ensure this.
- No-lobbying pledges from our officeholders — Officeholders are easily seduced by the possibility of lucrative employment with national lobbying organizations. Once interested, their loyalty is divided between their constituents and their future employers. This must stop. Candidates must pledge that they will not seek such employment.
- Support the grass roots — Many organizations are working for change. These include Rootstrikers, The Brennan Center at NYU, The National Institute on Money in State Politics, Free Speech for the People, Move to Amend, Public Campaign, Common Cause and many others. Look them up.
- Constitutional amendment — Passing a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress to pass reasonable electioneering regulations may seem like a long shot. But waiting for the Supreme Court to change course on its own is even less likely to produce the results we seek. It’s time to support the efforts amend our constitution.
Today our republic faces one of its greatest challenges: Whether to permit economic inequality to be converted into political inequality. This is the critical political question of our day. It’s worth fighting to protect the ideal of our founders.
Jon Ellingson is former Montana Senate majority leader. He lives in Missoula.