Dr. Timothy Kuhner stopped by the Common Cause office to talk about his new book, Capitalism vs. Democracy. In part 2, we discuss our nation's history as a forward march of political inclusion -- and how wealth is still used to shut people out.
Common Cause: The role of money in our democracy has reached historical excesses, especially since Citizens United. How would you describe the status quo?
Timothy Kuhner:I like to say that wealth is the last lawful means of political exclusion, because the other forms throughout our nation’s history have been shored up by legislation or by constitutional amendment.
Political exclusion is a recurring theme in our history. African-Americans have always been disenfranchised, whether from slavery, Jim Crow, or voter suppression laws today. Women were similarly excluded, as were Quakers, Catholics, and Jews for decades after our nation’s founding.
So, our progress as a nation has been about monumental feats of political inclusion – milestones like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, amending the constitution for women’s suffrage, African American suffrage, and to get rid of poll taxes – but the last remaining legal form of exclusion is wealth.
CC: How has it remained so potent?
TK: Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act in the 1970s, but cases like Buckley v. Valeo and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti undid important limits on money in politics, preserving wealth as a means of political exclusion . Whether or not that was the Justices’ intent, that’s the effect the Supreme Court’s holdings have had.
In recent years, the Court has overturned numerous campaign finance reforms, including matching funds in Arizona, the Millionaire’s Amendment in McCain-Feingold, strict contribution limits in Vermont, limits on corporate treasury spending in Citizens United, and limits on aggregate contributions in McCutcheon decided just this past April. The case law is a blueprint for a democracy in which .4% of the population controls parties, candidates, and outside speech.
CC: Who makes up this donor class?
TK: At the founding of the country, only white men with property could vote – not just white males, but white men with property. There was an uprising in Rhode Island—the famous Dorr’s Rebellion-- to undo that property requirement, which disenfranchised roughly 50% of the male population. It wasn't until the end of the Jacksonian period that property requirements were eliminated from every state in the Union.
And so we’ve gotten rid of property requirements, poll taxes, and the like, but still in American today, a tiny portion of the economic elite wield disproportionate influence over our democracy. So we’ve come full circle -- political exclusion today might not be explicitly written into the law, but it still functions to keep all but the wealthy from being heard.
The old property requirement only stopped about 50% from participating – today’s property requirement stops 99.5% of the population from having a powerful role. We can vote of course,
but only on a narrow selection of market-dominant candidates—those who have already been vetted and approved by the donor class.
TK: If you look at political donations in all federal election cycles from 1990-2012, you can see the percentage of voting age Americans who are giving more than $200 and therefore have to disclose. Between 1990 to 2012, no more than .58% of the adult population has given contributions over $200. And yet those $200 plus contributions are responsible for the great majority of election funds raised by candidates and parties. In the ongoing midterm elections, for example, only 0.19% of the U.S. population has supplied 64.6% of all contributions to candidates, PACs, and parties.
So .58% or less of the country provides the great majority of funds available to campaigns and party committees. When you look at superPACs and dark money groups, it’s even fewer people running the show. Consider the unprecedented $1.1 billion in “independent expenditures” in 2012. The top 100 donors to outside spending groups, a number representing a mere 0.00000042% of the voting age population, stood behind 67% of that money. By enlarging the sample to the top 1,000 donors, one would account for virtually all outside speech in 2012.
We’re returning to those same old power structures, with the few ruling at the expense of the many.
Office: Common Cause National