The Supreme Court's McCutcheon ruling will be remembered as a decisive battle in a determined and wealthy minority's war against the popular will. It is not the first such battle, nor will it be the last. And the people will continue to lose -- unless and until the rules of engagement are changed.
One compelling way to look at this ruling is by contrasting its immediate and long-term effects with the American people's aspirations for their government. They are at cross purposes. Even before this ruling, 64 percent of those polled believed that our country's economic rules unfairly favor the rich. This ruling will rig the game even further.
(Unless otherwise noted, polling results were drawn from PopulistMajority.org.)
People vs. Money
The immediate effect of this ruling is to give the wealthy even more political power than they have today. That's diametrically opposed to the people's will, since the public clearly wants money out of politics. Seventy-nine percent of those polled in one study support limiting the amount of funds that political candidates can raise and spend. Seventy-one percent believe the candidate with the most money wins. And, despite the fact that neither party is advocating public financing of elections, a Gallup study shows that the idea already has the support of 50 percent of the voters (while only 44 percent oppose it).
In the most striking statistic of all, 97 percent of voters in one poll believe it is important to get corruption out of politics. In his withering dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer makes it clear that this ruling will have the opposite effect. Breyer writes that "the plurality relies heavily upon a narrow definition of 'corruption' that excludes efforts to obtain 'influence over or access to' elected officials or political parties.'"
Justice Breyer notes that, by design, the majority's definition of corruption does not include efforts to "garner 'influence over or access to' elected officials or political parties." Adds Breyer: "We specifically rejected efforts to define 'corruption' in ways similar to those the plurality today accepts."
The public is already feeling alienated from the political process. Eighty-five percent of those polled in another study believe that members of Congress are more interested in serving special interests than the people they represent.
To a large extent, this disaffection is beginning to land on both parties. A study shows that 69 percent of voters believe that the policies of the Republican Party generally favor the rich. No surprise there. But 69 percent believe the Democratic Party should do more to address the needs and concerns of middle-class voters.
Policy for Sale
The long-term effects of this ruling will make it even more difficult for public opinion to influence public policy. As Chris Cillizza and others have explained, national party organizations like the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will have significantly greater fundraising ability -- and therefore significantly much greater influence over the selection of local candidates and the kinds of campaigns they choose to run.
It's facile to suggest, as some do, that "there is no difference between the two political parties." But they are far closer than they should be, especially at the national level and especially on economic issues. Thus we have the spectacle of a Democratic president proposing Republican-backed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, while those in Washington who express the majority opinion against these cuts are marginalized as "extreme."
In fact, 73 percent of those polled in another study believe that deficit reduction should be secured by raising taxes on the wealthy and not by cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. And yet under this ruling we are likely to see the same undemocratic spectacle repeated again and again, as popular opinion is increasingly marginalized in the mad rush for money.
Fundraising committees aren't the only big winners in the McCutcheon ruling. State candidates are also likely to find themselves able to access much larger pools of money, as Cillizza points out. Corporate and billionaire donors have already targeted state governments through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other organizations, and have met with considerable success.
States like Michigan and Wisconsin are feeling the painful effects of this effort in initiatives that include "emergency manager laws" that overthrow city governments, tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, high-handed moves against unions, and even the notorious "stand your ground" laws that led to the tragic death of young Trayvon Martin.
As money increasingly dominates all levels of government, corporations and wealthy individuals will reap the benefits - while the rest of the public pays the price. Here are some other examples of public aspirations that are more likely to be crushed now that this ruling has been handed down:
- 57 percent think upper income Americans pay less than their fair share in taxes;
- 66 percent say the richest 2 percent should pay more in taxes;
- 73 percent believe that corporations pay too little in taxes and that America should eliminate corporate loopholes to stimulate the economy;
- 69 percent of the respondents in one poll believe that tax loopholes for corporate meals and entertainment should be eliminated;
- 83 percent believe that corporations should pay as much on foreign profits as they do on US profits;
- 73 percent of those polled in another study believe that corporations pay too little in taxes and that America should eliminate corporate loopholes to stimulate the economy;
- 68 percent want to eliminate the carried interest loophole that allows Wall Street hedge fund managers to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class taxpayers;
- and, 79 percent want to close tax loopholes to ensure that American corporations pay as much on foreign profits as they do on profits made in the U.S.
Instead we're likely to see more displays like the embarrassing spectacle of Republican presidential candidates presenting themselves to gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson as if they were pageant contestants in the "talent" portion of the competition. (Uh-oh! Chris Christie uses the phrase "occupied territories" and the buzzer sounds!)
It would be amusing -- if it weren't so offensive to our core American values.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that "government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford."
Whichever of Sheldon Adelson's contestants is ultimately granted his largesse will undoubtedly feel a deep, if "general," gratitude toward the billionaire. And the "political access" that is already difficult for most Americans to obtain will move even further out of reach.
The Challenge of Our Time
The stakes couldn't be higher. Economists like Thomas Piketty are telling us of the enormous risks we face as wealth and power are increasingly accumulated in the hands of a tiny minority. Other investigations, like this NASA-funded study, suggest that the stability of our civilization is at risk if we cannot restrain corporate exploitation of the planet's human and natural resources.
Both public opinion and the forces of demographic change are working against the billionaires and the corporations, so the response is to maximize the power of money and minimize the power of democracy. This court's partial overthrow of the Voting Rights Act was a response to the shifting composition of the American population. This week's ruling, like Citizens United and others that will inevitably follow, is designed to give corporations and the wealthy near-complete control over the political process.
"Where enough money calls the tune," said Justice Breyer in his dissent, "the general public will not be heard."
Wealthy interests are taking this struggle very seriously. This ruling is the result of a decades-long strategy to repopulate the American judicial system with political partisans willing to act boldly in the interests of corporations and the wealthy. That does not mean that all is lost. There is a national mood of deep dissatisfaction with a status quo based on privilege and inequality. Sometimes all that is needed is a galvanizing moment, after which a mood becomes a movement. With luck, and if we work to make it so, this could be that moment for a movement to restore democracy in the United States.
Previous generations rose to the urgency of their moments: to end slavery, to give women the vote, to rebuild after the Great Depression, to establish civil rights and end wars. Today's ruling points us to the defining struggle of today's generation -- a struggle for democracy itself. This defeat could ultimately lead to victory -- if we respond to the urgency of the moment.