By Jim Miller
Last week was a very bad week for American democracy. With the McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court of the United States dealt a sweeping blow to existing campaign finance laws that seek to limit the influx of money in American politics.
In the wake of the Citizens United case that opened the door for big spending by Super PACS and dark money, this ruling takes another step towards plutocracy by striking down overall limits on campaign contributions. By doing so McCutcheon rudely thrusts us further into a new Gilded Age where our economy and our politics are thoroughly dominated by a small minority of the opulent.
Senator Bernie Sanders put it best when he observed that, “The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.” And that’s why it’s increasingly hard to get anything good for everyday people done in Washington D.C., even when a healthy majority of Americans approve of a given policy.
As Robert Hine at Demos notes, the Congressional inertia around increasing the federal minimum wage is a case in point:
The inability of Washington to raise the minimum wage is a prime example of how that elite donor dominance impacts real-world policymaking. Last week, House Republicans unanimously voted down the president’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over three years. This flies in the face of popular will. A March Bloomberg poll showed nearly three-quarters of respondents backing the president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Yet only 40 percent of wealthy Americans agree. Those Americans, who our lawmakers hear from the most, largely don’t support a minimum wage increase and their preferences hold undue sway in Washington because of a broken campaign finance system.
In other words, the fox is guarding the hen house and our nation’s highest court just gave more political power to the same group of oligarchs who are working hard to restrict voting, kill unions, and limit American democracy in nearly every way possible.
As the Sunlight Foundation’s analysis of what the post-McCutcheon landscape would look like concluded, this ruling “will take an incredibly incredibly unequal system of campaign finance and turn it into an incredibly incredibly incredibly incredibly unequal system.” More specifically, they note that an elite group of about 1000 donors will see the most benefit in terms of their ability to buy access and dictate policy.
Most of this well-heeled gang hails from Wall Street, and while the majority are GOP donors, what matters most is not so much party but policy. Indeed, while some may disagree on social issues, not many will be big advocates of redistributive tax policies or restrictions on the untrammeled power of our new robber barons.
Thus we should be prepared to get more lectures on providing “ladders of opportunity” from the likes of Bill Gates and the folks at the UT-San Diego, but not much enthusiasm for policies that actually challenge the existing power structure that helps keep them rich and most of the rest of us struggling, whether we are in the ever more fragile middle class or just hoping to get there.
So you should be very mad about this, particularly if you are smart enough not to fall for the new Social Darwinist tendency in our politics that offers up feeble self-help answers for big structural problems in our economy. Simply put, there are no market-based, individual solutions to the problems the neoliberal social order presents for the average person.
As Doug Henwood notes in his review of Thomas Picketty’s seminal new study, Capital in the 21st Century:
The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.
Thus, the only means we have to combat what Robert Reich calls “Inequality for All” lie in collective political action. What the Supreme Court’s insistence that spending equals speech assures us is that the rich get a well-funded mass communication system while we are left to holler on the street corner.