Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited corporate spending in American federal elections, has created a political firestorm on the political Left as the specter of even more money influencing elections and empowering the rich at the expense of the poor. The outrage, while legitimate, reveals a weakness in our politics that obfuscates similarly important problems: we tend to focus on new problems and ignore continuing ones. I believe that Citizens United was a disastrous ruling that only consolidates electoral, political, and policy power into the hands of America's plutocrats; they, of course, will use this power to continue the subjugation of the poor. The truth, however, is that big money is an after-the-fact concern that pales in comparison to congressional redistricting in terms of impact and perversion of the political system. This decennial exercise, akin to a gentlemens agreement to divide the states between the Democratic and Republican political cartels, is a far bigger threat to our democracy that the money that flows into our elections.
We have little real choice in our elections. Even with low double digit congressional approval ratings, my guess is that at least 80 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection will win. Here is a number that should open some eyes: 95 percent of all House members who sought reelection between 1982 through 2004 were reelected. Expanding the time horizon changes the numbers but not their effect. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 1964 and 2010, the incumbent in the House was reelected between 85 percent and 98 percent of the time; the majority of those election cycles resulted in incumbent reelection rates of at least 90 percent. Those are Kim Jung Il and Robert Mugabe numbers that legitimately call into question the fundamental tenet of American democracy: the use of elections express the representative will of the people. A system with historically low approval ratings for Congress yet ridiculously high reelection rates cannot be seen as an accurate reflection of voter will.
As a candidate, having all the money in the world won't matter much if the district in which you run is ideologically different from your politics. Similarly, eliminating big money from politics won't matter if there is an ideological mismatch in the district. The policy consequences that stem from illegitimate political power have long compromised the American political system. Concerned activists and pundits must pay more attention to this critical issue.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com and can be followed on Twitter @MKFauntroy.