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McCutcheon, Money and Democracy

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The recent decision by the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case is another ruling that ensures a greater influence of money in politics and ultimately weakens American democracy. Anybody who follows American politics, and particularly elections, with even moderate interest knows that money has always played a major role in our political system, and that in recent years, primarily because of the Citizens United case, it has grown to play a bigger role. Stories of massive independent expenditures, candidates spending most of their time raising money and building relationships with wealthy individuals and the troubling influence of powerful PACs on the political process are unavoidable and an important part of our political system.

Nonetheless, many observers of politics might not be aware that the media, not necessarily deliberately, consistently understates the role of money in politics. Those that work in politics have internalized this reality so much that they no longer even remark on it, while many outside of politics are now always aware of where to look to get the full picture of the role of money in politics. Money influences elections, as everybody knows, but the influence of money in things like drafting legislation in committees, state laws and regulations, appointments to government offices or regulatory bodies,is not as broadly understood. It is also probably more nefarious. Elections are public events with a fair amount of transparency; these other parts of government are not.

The McCutcheon ruling addresses, and overturns, a specific piece of campaign finance law. Until this decision individuals were restricted in the total they could give to a political party in a year. This total included giving to various party funds as well as directly to candidates and was capped at $123,200. It is immediately noticeable that this is a lot of money. The overwhelming majority of Americans were never directly effected by this law simply because most of us do not have a spare $120,000 and change to give to political candidates and parties in a single year. Indirectly, of course, many Americans were effected by the restriction because it placed some, albeit modest, limits on the influence of the very wealthy on the political process.

The McCutcheon ruling changes this in several ways. First, it removes the restriction on total contributions, thus freeing the wealthiest Americans to have an even more outsized impact on the political process. Those few Americans who have extreme wealth can now use this wealth to more directly influence political parties. The impact this will have on the lawmaking process is unclear. It is true that there are extremely wealthy individuals who have liberal and conservative views, but it is also true that some views, for example support for labor unions or increased assistance to poor people, are less common among the very wealthy. There are few ultra-wealthy individuals willing to commit enormous resources to progressive economic policies, and many who will support conservative economic policies.

The other impact of the Supreme Court ruling is less direct, but possibly more profound. The ruling sends a completely unambiguous message that as the Supreme Court sees money as a form of speech. We have heard this, in one form or another, that the absurdity of that notion is rarely questioned. It should be. In a democratic system, equality between citizens is a bedrock foundational principle. This is why every person gets one votes regardless of gender, race, status or wealth, and also why countries that do not meet this criteria can never be fully democratic.

Equating money, which is never distributed equally, with speech undermines this concept. Money is a means to amplify speech, and our campaign finance system has made money more important than it has to be in that regard, but it is not speech. Spending money how one wants is not the same as saying what one wants. We place many limits on how people can spend money. They cannot buy drugs, bribe people, pay people without reporting it to the government and the like. Similar limitations on speech would be a clear abrogation of the Bill of Rights. Limiting how the very wealthiest, who are already given ample latitude to use their money to influence politics, is another restriction on how money can be used, but it is not a limit on free speech.

The McCutcheon decision occurs in a context where income inequality has become a more significant problem that has the potential not only to damage our economy, but to have a negative impact on American society and politics more broadly. A decision that encourages the expression of this inequality in political life, and that tells an increasingly unequal society that those with more money have the legal right to more political power, in even more ways before,is a blow to our democracy that tells most Americans not to even expect an equal opportunity to have their voices heard in the political process.