12 April, 2014

Democracy for Sale

This post is a bit of a departure from my previous posts. In the past I've focused on Germany and German culture, and only brought in information or opinions about the United States as a means of comparison with Germany. This time, however, the United States has gone so far that I need to leave my German focus behind and just write about the problem.

As I hope all of you (at least the Americans reading this) have heard, several days ago the United States Supreme Court made a decision that basically destroyed the few remaining restraints on political spending. The case is known as McCutcheon vs. FEC (Federal Election Commission). This article from the Guardian sums it up well, and if you aren't aware of this case or what the decision means I highly suggest that you read it:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/02/supreme-court-strikes-down-cap-campaign-contributions.

For those of you who didn't want to read the article (but really, go back and read it!), this decision eliminated the cumulative limit on how much money a person can donate to politicians and political organizations in a single two-year election cycle. Yes, I said eliminated. Completely. That means that any one person can use unlimited amounts of money to fund multiple political campaigns for candidates and/or parties that support their interests. (The limit on contributions to an individual candidate still remains, but at this point that limit is just a formality.) To put it more bluntly, anyone with enough money can buy as much political influence as they want. Combine this with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision from 2010, which gave corporations the same rights to donate to politics as people, and you have a recipe for legalized corruption on an unprecedented scale.

Supporters of this decision, and those who don't understand all of its implications, could argue that as long as we have a "one person, one vote" system, the people still have the power to control who represents them in government. This point does have some truth to it: as long as we continue to have a representative democracy, the voters still ultimately have the power to elect who they see fit. The problem, however, is that the people with money to fund campaigns are the ones who choose who we get to choose from. When the choice on election day is between two candidates swimming in campaign contributions from various rich donors, what kind of choice is that? Once they are elected, their donors can exert an enormous amount of pressure on them by threatening to cut off support for the next election cycle, and a politician in this position is much more likely to please their donors than their constituents. It's bribery at its finest, and most dangerous. And even if a less well-funded candidate does receive enough recognition to have a shot at getting elected, those candidates and political organizations with more money can use their money to discredit the candidate and completely destroy their campaign. The power of money to decide the allocation of votes cannot be overstated.

What really gets me is that this decision was justified by using the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. According to the Supreme Court, limiting the amount of money someone can donate to political campaigns constitutes an infringement of that person's (or corporation's) right to free speech. Umm, WHAT??? Since WHEN does money count as free speech? The free speech clause of the First Amendment was included to protect average citizens from persecution for expressing a legitimately held opinion that differed from that of the government. How can anyone possibly equate spending money on politics to free speech? Free speech is allowing people to express opinions about candidates, to talk to their neighbors and friends, and to write about candidates or elections in any media outlet they see fit. If anything, allowing several rich people and corporations to dominate the political campaign process infringes on the right to free speech of the little guy who can only donate $100 to a campaign every few years.

How did America become a place where the rich are protected and the little guy is completely disregarded? The Constitution has been used in such astoundingly incompetent ways that it can barely be seen as the basis for a just and equal society. We've come so far from the ideals espoused in our founding documents, and those ideals have been twisted and corrupted, just like the rest of our political system. While those with money can shape public opinion and exert massive and undemocratic influence on political decisions, the average person in America is left with very little power to have any impact at all. No wonder many Americans distrust the government. The government doesn't work for them anymore, it works for whatever entity donates the most money.

What needs to happen is exactly the opposite of what just happened: rules need to be instated that significantly restrict how much money someone can donate to a political campaign. This should be something very low, like $1000 every two-year election cycle. That way, a $20 contribution from an average working family would be more valuable. Big spenders would have much less leverage to buy American politics, and people would start to regain trust in our political system. The rest of campaign spending should be publicly funded. Each candidate or party should be allotted a certain amount of money to campaign with, which would lend more fairness to the process and significantly increased the chances of success for third-party candidates. This is similar to how Germany's elections are funded, so I know a system like this can work.

Limits on direct contributions also need to go along with strict regulations for who can buy political advertising. Political ad spots should only be available to the official campaign of a candidate or to political parties. These limits are important because without them, an individual could still buy a bunch of advertising with personal funds and use them for their own political agenda. (I don't actually know if restrictions such as these exist/have existed in the past, but I think they are key to fixing the current problem.)

Changes like this would drastically change the look of American political campaigns. We wouldn't be constantly bombarded with political advertising, because the money to buy ad spots wouldn't be there. Politicians would actually have to do what they used to do, and what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders still does during his campaigns: go out and talk to their constituents directly. Politicians would actually have to know what the people wanted, and maybe, with people in office who had the people's interests truly at heart, we wouldn't suffer from the constant political log-jam that dominates current efforts of Congress.

When I hear news like this recent Supreme Court decision, I worry for my home country. I worry for the average people who suffer when the rich get too rich and have too much influence. I worry for the stability of the country and by extension the world, since so many other countries have close ties to the United States. I worry for the people in other countries who suffer when their governments emulate failed American policies. And most personally, I worry that the United States will never again be a place I want to go back to. Money can buy so many things, and unfortunately money from the wrong hands is wreaking havoc on what should still be a great country. The United States is in a downward spiral, and I worry what will happen when it hits bottom. I hope the country will wake up soon and realize that democracy should never be for sale.

Photo: www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/recent-business/high-court-gives-big-money-more-say-in-campaigns

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