Dr. Timothy Kuhner stopped by the Common Cause office to talk about his new book, Capitalism vs. Democracy. In part 1, we discuss how the Supreme Court has reshaped our political system to function like a free market -- and what that means for our democracy.
Common Cause: The ideal of “one person, one vote” is key to our democracy. Is this really possible when money can buy political influence?
Timothy Kuhner: “One person, one vote” remains the rule, but one “one person one vote” cannot accomplish what it’s supposed to. The theory of a representative form of government where elected representatives are responsive to their geographic communities has been disproven in our privatized form of democracy.
The Supreme Court has brought about this form of democracy by declaring money to be speech, democracy to be a free market, corporations to be citizens with First Amendment rights, and by opposing all of the reasons to regulate money in politics—including political equality, democratic integrity, undue influence, and protecting the time of officeholders from constant fundraising.
The incredible sums of money in politics that we see today sever the linkage between voters and their elected representatives. Those sums destroy popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, and meaningful representation of the population. In place of that system you get consumer sovereignty, where office-holders, candidates, political parties, are responsive to the biggest donors and the biggest spenders.
CC: You call this “free market democracy” – could you expand on that?
TK: Free market democracy is the system we have today. It’s a system where political competition is routed through a market that consists of donations to parties, candidates, and party committees, as well as outside spending by superPACs or dark money groups, or by individuals like Sheldon Adelson or George Soros – whoever wants to run an ad.
Free market democracy is a system where all of those competing price signals occur in a market and political competition is conducted through private financial resources. Does the biggest spender or donor always win? No. But as in any market, you can’t participate unless you have market power, and so the vote has become a popular referendum on the market-dominant candidates.
CC: How do those price signals work?
TK: Ability and willingness to pay are your criteria for participation in a consumer market – can you buy that car, and are you willing to buy that car over something else? The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution, the First Amendment in particular, to apply those same rules to political participation.
Once you get that open market recipe in place, then the ability to spend and the willingness to spend can’t be diminished by government regulation, because it’s a form of free speech, and participation in that market is sacrosanct.
It seems like an equal plan on paper – everyone who is able or willing to spend can spend, and there’s no discrimination on paper to who can participate. You can be of any race, any gender, any religion, any sexual orientation – but you’d better have the money, or else you can’t send the price signals to which the political market responds.
That market system is supposed to be, in theory, a wise, efficient system that’s better than government, but in reality, it’s a system of excluding the poor, and the middle class, and even the lower rungs of the wealthy – everyone but the donor class, which makes up a very elite 0.5% or less of the U.S. population.
Office: Common Cause National