Will Citizens United Sound the Death Knell For American Democracy
It may come off as hype even talking about the end of democracy in America, but one has to wonder about that as the repercussions of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court become more evident. America’s democracy has survived many hits in the past, but it’s possible this one could be a knock-out blow. And once down on the mat, democracy may not be able to get up again.
This consideration was raised by a recent Politico article reporting that Republican Super PACs will spend a billion dollars to try and elect their candidates in this election cycle. (http://bit.ly/KVRzdF) These are not grass-roots organizations, but groups financed by a few big donors. For example, groups linked to the Koch brothers will spend about $400 million alone, organizing operations in important districts and states.
Now, there are those who will say ‘so what,’ and that campaign spending is like a popularity contest, where candidates with the most appeal raise the most money. And that the Democrats can also try and generate as much money as they can if they want to make the races more competitive. And that money and campaign ads don’t determine the way people vote. And that Obama spent three quarters of a billion dollars on the last presidential campaign anyway.
In relation to the last argument, the money Obama raised and spent on his campaign was through his own organization and he vetted and was responsible for the messages that emerged. With the plethora of Super PACs now sprouting all over the landscape, extremely wealthy people can issue their own messages as they attempt to influence elections, often anonymously and with no constraints on what is said or how much money is donated. They can distort opponents’ messages, say things out of context or with only a kernel of truth, or frankly lie or make up stories, with no one and no governmental agency to take them to task.
By buying up enough air time in major markets in the swing states, they can completely dominate the political dialogue in the presidential campaigns, restricting the ability of opponents to respond over the airways and drowning out any counterthrusts. These kingmakers can similarly impact Congressional and Senatorial races with their money, electing men and women with worldviews comparable to their own, thus being able to determine governmental policy.
Unfortunately, this control of the electoral process can become self-perpetuating, extinguishing the vestiges of democracy. Instead of free and open elections, America could undergo a transition to a plutocracy, where the very wealthy have the power and make the rules. The only way this can be averted is if common sense limitations on campaign spending by individuals and corporations are instituted again. But how can this happen if our elected representatives, along with the president and Supreme Court are opposed to any restrictions?
Economic inequality in America will grow even worse in the future, as the tax laws and regulations are further shaped to favor the rich. And this will be more than matched by the disproportionate political power of the rich. If these Super PACs are allowed to continue to control the discourse, any semblance of fairness that remains in political campaigns and elections will vanish.
Some see a negative legacy from George W. Bush’s presidency as a result of the Iraq War and tax laws that increased the nation’s budget deficits. However, I believe his enduring legacy will be his nominations to the Supreme Court, with its Citizen’s United ruling that gave control of the political process to the extremely wealthy.
James Madison noted in The Federalist Papers- “We may define a republic to be… a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people…not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class.” We are now moving away from this vision for our republic and whether or not this trend can be reversed remains a question.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.
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