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The Road to Oligarchy

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The Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing Tuesday on "Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs" Here is Sen. Bernie Sanders' testimony:

Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening a hearing on the monumentally important issue of "Taking Back Our Democracy." Unfortunately, that title exactly describes the challenge facing us today.

The history of this country has been the drive toward a more and more inclusive democracy -- a democracy which would fulfill Abraham Lincoln's beautiful phraseology at Gettysburg in which he described America as a nation "of the people by the people for the people."

We all know American democracy has not always lived up to this ideal. When this country was founded, only white male property owners over age 21 could vote. But people fought to change that and we became a more inclusive democracy. After the Civil War, we amended the Constitution to allow non-white men to vote. We became a more inclusive democracy. In 1920, after years of struggle and against enormous opposition, we finally ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. We became a more inclusive democracy.

In 1965, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, the great civil rights movement finally succeeded in outlawing racism at the ballot box and LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. We became a more inclusive democracy.

One year after that, the Supreme Court ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional, that people could not be denied the right to vote because they were low-income. We became a more inclusive democracy. In 1971, young people throughout the country said; "we are being drafted to go to Vietnam and get killed, but we don't even have the right to vote." The voting age was lowered to 18. We became a more inclusive democracy.

The democratic foundations of our country and this movement toward a more inclusive democracy are now facing the most severe attacks, both economically and politically, that we have seen in the modern history of our country. Tragically, as I say this advisedly, we are well on our way to seeing our great country move toward an oligarchic form of government -- where virtually all economic and political power rest with a handful of very wealthy families. This is a trend we must reverse.

Economically, the United States today has, by far, the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth and that inequality is worse today in America than at any time since the late 1920s.

Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America -- 150 million people.

Today, one family, the Walton family of Walmart fame, with $89 billion, own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America. One family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.

Today, the top one percent own 40 percent of all wealth, while the bottom sixty percent owns less than 2 percent. Incredibly, the bottom 40 percent of all Americans own just 3/10 of one percent of the wealth of the country.

That is what is going on economically in this country. A handful of billionaires own a significant part of the wealth of America and have enormous control over our economy. What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires: "You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government." That is the essence of what Citizens United is all about -- and that's why it must be overturned.

Let's be clear. Why should we be surprised that one family, worth $50 billion, is prepared to spend $400 million in this election to protect their interests? That's a small investment for them and a good investment. But it is not only the Koch brothers.

There are at least 23 billionaire families who have contributed a minimum of $250,000 each into the political process up to now during this campaign; my guess is that number is really much greater because many of these contributions are made in secret. In other words, not content to own our economy, the one percent want to own our government as well.

The constitutional amendment that Congressman Ted Deutch and I have introduced states the following:

• For-profit corporations are not people, and are not entitled to any rights under the Constitution.
• For-profit corporations are entities of the states, and are subject to regulation by the legislatures of the states, so long as the regulations do not limit the freedom of the press.
• For-profit corporations are prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in political campaigns.
• Congress and the states have the right to regulate and limit all political expenditures and contributions, including those made by a candidate.

I'm proud to say the American people are making their voices heard on this issue -- they are telling us loud and clear it is time to reverse the trend. Six states, including my home state of Vermont, have passed resolutions asking us to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. More than 200 local governments have done the same, including many in Vermont. I'm proud to sponsor one such amendment. My colleagues here, Mr. Baucus, Mr. Udall, and Ms. Edwards, all have good amendments, and I thank them for their hard work on this issue.

To read the list of billionaire families donating at least $250,000 to campaigns, click here.
To read more about Sanders' Saving American Democracy Amendment, click here.

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