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scotus strikes back

April 3, 2014

Yesterday, the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC effectively struck down the overall cap on the “total amount any individual can contribute to federal candidates in a two-year election cycle,” according to the New York Times. The 5-to-4 decision is similar to that of the 2012 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which “struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions” based upon its perceived infringement of First Amendment rights.

On the one hand, many see any limitations on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional restriction on the exercise of the First Amendment, especially in light of the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo equating money with speech. Just as newspapers aren’t limited to the number of candidates they can endorse via editorials, some argue that contributors shouldn’t be limited by limits to the number of candidates they can support/endorse with their pocket books. So while the $2,600 per candidate limit on contributions from individuals to candidates in primary and general elections ($5,200 total) still stands, the overall limit of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates and the $74,600 limit on contributions to political party committees have been removed. More money = more freedom, right?

Others, however, like the dissenting Justice Breyer, see this decision as further opening the floodgates of cash from wealthy donors, which will give them (and those they support) an even bigger advantage in each election, raising “the overall contribution ceiling to ‘the number infinity.'” The way elections are currently conducted and financed in the US, the average citizen has enough trouble competing with the lobbying power of large multinational corporations and the wealthy, thereby severely limiting their ‘voice’ in the political process. And this ruling will help the voices (i.e., the $) of the wealthy, whose political views on economic issues often differ from that of the majority of working-class citizens, further outweigh those of average citizens. In other words, it’s a victory, via the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, for the interests of the wealthy.

But from another standpoint, one could argue that this decision is not only in line with the intent of the framers of the Constitution, it’s the logical conclusion of their intent. Many of the Founding Fathers were critical of direct democracy, mistrusting the will of the majority itself (though not entirely without reason). Like most forms of government centred around private property rights, the basic principle behind the establishment of our form of representative democracy had more to do with the ruling elites wanting to protect the small minority of property owners (including themselves) from the majority of the propertyless than anything else. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, “[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

The only real difference between the Founders and the wealthy elites of today is that the former were primarily holders of landed property while the elites of today are holders of money capital, which for all intents and purposes are the same thing in that both are property in the political-economic sense of the term. What people like Jefferson (who was critical of what he saw as the ascendancy of the aristocracy of banking institutions and monied corporations) and Madison seemed to fail to realize is that having a political-economic system centred on private property rights, which are considered sacrosanct, actually protects and even promotes the rise of a new kind of aristocracy, one based on capital and wealth rather than hereditary nobility and land ownership.

Liberalism (the emerging philosophy of the time that greatly influenced the shaping of the Constitution) links private property to liberty, and through private property rights, secures the liberty of the propertied. Consequently, the greater one’s property, the greater one’s means of self-determination. Anyone who thinks otherwise and defends the Constitution and the Founders as the ‘be all, end all’ of democracy would do well to recall that, originally, the representatives in this new republic were elected by a select few, namely white, male property owners—it was their interests that truly mattered and shaped the political and legal superstructures we know today. And as Adam Lioz, a public policy analysis from Demos, points out, “[T]he donor class is overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male… so we’re going to see folks who can have access to those networks of donors have an even greater edge in deciding who can run for office and who wins.”

So while rulings like that of Citizens United and McCutcheon may appear to some as moving America away from its democratic roots, what they may actually be doing is moving us back towards our liberal-republican roots, eroding some of the victories won over the past couple of centuries by the poor and disenfranchised in the ongoing fight for equality and universal suffrage. In essence, the game is rigged. To fix these problems, we need to change the rules; and to change the rules, we need, in the words of The Coup, to ‘flip this system.’

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