Co-authored by Jonathan Stone
The promise of "liberty and justice for all" remains a vital part of our nation's Pledge of Allegiance, and is embedded in our childhood memories of starting each school day with this oath. We were learning to be proud Americans through the recitation of the pledge, which has been with us since the late 19th century, when it was composed by a Socialist -- yes, that's right, a Socialist -- minister named Francis Bellamy. Bellamy's Pledge was simple and relatively benign, requiring only that we declare our allegiance to the flag and the "one nation" it represents, with no reference to any influence from above. However, in 1954 the words "under God" were inserted by Congress at the urging of President Eisenhower as a way to distinguish ourselves from the "godless" Communists. The addition of those two words led to several court cases -- some going all the way up to the Supreme Court -- that determined, among other things, that kids had the right to not say the pledge in school if they did not want to. Today, many schools across the country exercise this hard-fought right as well, and in schools that do still recite the pledge, children cannot be forced to participate, nor can they be punished for opting out.
As the Supreme Court decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case was delivered last week, for some reason the pledge popped into my head. I thought about the potential impact of Americans -- at least the 99 percent of us who won't now be able to spend millions of dollars influencing elections because of this decision -- expressing their anger at the Supreme Court's latest giveaway of political power to the 1 percent by having their children remain mute the next time they were asked to recite the Pledge. And what of those sporting events that open with the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner"? What better way could there be for us to display our horror at last week's decision than by remaining silent then, too? Such acts could send a very clear message that we, the American people, are fully aware that our democracy is on the verge of vanishing. We might also note that the pledge is recited daily in Congress by its members. Could the backlash extend even to that hallowed chamber, with Progressives and other Dems showing their displeasure at the Court's decision by remaining silent as well? Even the president will have to find some way to acknowledge this disaster, as he will now surely have a much more difficult time peddling our rapidly diminishing brand of democracy to the world in his travels.
The day before the decision was announced -- on April Fools' Day, no less -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, revealed this year's version of the GOP budget, which is pretty much the same old flaky stuff he has been peddling since 2011. Its centerpiece is a $5.1 trillion cut in federal spending over the next ten years, achieved in part by slashing food stamps -- yet again -- and cutting all forms of government sponsored healthcare for the poor and working class, including, of course, repealing Obamacare. His budget would also institute severe cuts to student aid and pensions for federal workers, while Medicare vouchers and cuts to Social Security benefits would also be on the menu -- despite the pushback from most Americans on these proposals in the past. Meanwhile, there would be no tax increases for the wealthy, but cuts instead -- surprise, surprise.
Ryan's plan offers a pretty scary glimpse of the future if Republicans retain control of the House and take over the Senate this year, which remains our only safety valve protecting us from getting pushed over an economic cliff by these right-wing loons. Eighty years of progress could be rolled back in a blink of an eye if the Republicans gain a stranglehold on Congress, and we can now thank the Supreme Court for making such a scenario not only possible, but likely. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts continues to operate under the delusion that free speech and money are the same thing, and that the broad right to "participate" in elections trumps the real threat to our democracy that will come from the influence peddling and corruption free-for-all that this decision will unleash.
Conservative Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon brought this case to the Supreme Court because he wanted to donate to 27 candidates in 2012, but was stopped by FEC spending caps. In winning the case, he has now opened the floodgates so that the maximum amount of $5,200 can be donated to every candidate running in every House and Senate race during an election cycle. The decision also raises the total amount that an individual can donate to as much as $5.9 million per cycle, according to an email alert I received from Public Citizen, including money given to PAC's and party committees. The aggregate limit is also ended, so there will be no such thing as "maxing out" on donations anymore. Chief Justice Roberts offered some fuzzy logic in his majority opinion when he wrote that "...limits do not act to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption." In his dissent, Justice Steven Breyer -- a true liberal if ever there was one -- said that "the ruling and previous decision loosening contributions by corporations and unions eviscerated our nation's campaign finance laws." Clearly, Justice Breyer saw the quid pro quo connection, even if the willfully blind Justice Roberts did not.
Forbes recently updated its list of the world's billionaires, and it is no surprise that Charles and David Koch tied at number six, with each being worth over $40 billion this year, up $6 billion each from a year ago and a whopping $15 billion each from 2012. So it is easy to see the kind of money they can and will pump into this year's races. Indeed, the Kochs will likely spend close to $100 million to elect Republicans over the next two cycles, as will fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is number eight on the list. In 2012, total spending for federal elections, which included every open seat in Congress and the presidential election, was around $7 billion, according to the FEC -- an amount the Kochs could have covered themselves. And let's not forget the US Chamber of Commerce and the money they can throw into the GOP's coffers, as well as those 400 wealthiest families in the US. Last month, in just one fundraiser for House candidates, the National Republican Congressional Committee raised over $15 million.
Meanwhile, the Dems are hardly twiddling their thumbs when it comes to raising "da money." Heavyweights in the Democratic Party are also making the pitch to their base for donations through a flood of emails from the likes of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, President Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, with the emphasis on saving and expanding the majority in the Senate. The Senate is where Supreme Court justices are confirmed, so holding and expanding those Democratic seats is critical. Liberal activist billionaires are also getting into the mix, pledging to raise and donate hundreds of millions to oppose conservative candidates. Liberal donors like Jonathan Soros -- George's son -- and Tom Steyer have both pledged to support Democrats through 2016 and beyond, with Steyer promising $50 million of his own money, while seeking an additional $50 million from other wealthy liberals.
The Founding Fathers feared money-driven corruption would eat away at our government, and we have seen throughout history that when there is rampant government corruption, the rich are also usually beating middle class and working class Americans into the ground, aided by watered-down regulations and lax enforcement. From the East India Company of England's heyday, to the Gilded Age and its notorious robber barons, to today's greedy, selfish 1 percent, throughout history the super-rich have spared no expense in manipulating governments to do their bidding. Today, we Americans must rise to this new challenge and demand change if we are to keep our country from falling back into the bad old days of Wild West-style capitalism run amok.
So how do we do that? The McCutcheon decision should be the tipping point, and we must now understand that we are indeed in a class war. We must rid our government of obstructionists who are in the pocket of the 1 percent and we must increase the numbers of true Progressives in both the Senate and House who will fight to pass an amendment to overturn McCutcheon and the Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and go to public funding of campaigns at every level of government. Democrats have a winning hand this election year if they can come together as a party and get behind these two bold initiatives. There is already considerable support in Congress among Democrats for public funding of campaigns, and now they must make it the issue at the forefront of their individual campaigns, and one of the core messages of the Democratic party this year and in 2016. That includes you, too, Mr. President, as the leader of your party and this country. Make the goal of cleaning up our government and returning it to the People part of your legacy.
There is plenty of work ahead.
"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress on the Concentration of Economic Power, April 29, 1938