The Threat to American Democracy
We are at a pivotal moment in American history.
Building the United States of America has been long, arduous and rife with setbacks. But throughout the years, we have undoubtedly moved toward a more inclusive democracy. We expanded the right to vote. We eliminated the poll tax. We banned corporations from donating to campaigns after the scandals of the Gilded Age and imposed stricter limits on donations and expenditures after Watergate.
But today, those improvements are in serious jeopardy. The Supreme Court struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act and Congress has yet to pass a fix. Voter ID laws are the new poll taxes. And thanks to years of pressure from conservative activists, five members of the Supreme Court have destroyed more than a century of campaign-finance laws.
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a disastrous 5-4 opinion striking down major parts of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This case and subsequent rulings, including McCutcheon v. FEC, have led to the explosion of outside money in elections through so-called super PACs. In the 2012 election, we quickly saw the results — 32 major super PAC donors combined to give more money than the millions of ordinary Americans who donated less than $200 each to Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. More than 60 percent of all super PAC funds came from just 159 donors, each of whom gave more than $1 million.
Even more worrisome is the explosion of “dark money” — dollars spent by groups that do not have to disclose their funding sources. The 2012 election saw almost $300 million in dark money spending, and the 2014 election could potentially see as much as $1 billion.
No single issue is more important to the needs of average Americans. If we cannot control billionaires’ power to buy elections, the people elected to office will be responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the needs of everyone else.
When the Supreme Court says, for purposes of the First Amendment, that corporations are people, that writing checks from the company’s bank account is constitutionally protected speech and that attempts to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, our democracy is in grave danger.