In an earlier era in this country’s history, buying local judges was a routine affair–almost expected in places like Boston and New York (see Tammany Hall and the Gilded Age), and one way a wealthy person might use the legal system to tilt the political or economic playing field in a city or a state in their favor. Today, the wealthy don’t have to bribe judges any more; they just have to find judges that ideologically agree with them. With that, crimes like graft and corruption become a thing of the past, and everything else falls in to place for them.
In the case of the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, the wealthy and the powerful have found such a judge and an advocate, as well as four others on his court to do their bidding. Their 5 to 4 decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon made that plain enough. In the collective mind of these five justices, money equals freedom of speech. So, logically the more money one has the more one can speak out and the more people will hear them on their radios and TVs, or read their opinions or their surrogates’ opinions in the local newspapers.
So, what is wrong with that?
Actually, the concerns are numerous. As it turns out, each of these court decisions allow the wealthy and the powerful (including corporations and unions) to provide huge amounts of campaign funds for their handpicked politicians not just in their own local area but nationwide. And since 2010 with Citizens United, it has already had a dramatic effect on the way people are elected–and who is elected. This can most easily be seen in the mid-term elections when money can have its greatest impact, and when fewer voters turn out to the polls. Certainly, Justice Roberts must have seen this coming. Changing the financial rules of any game almost inevitably leads to different outcomes, in this case political. The financial rules were changed for Wall Street in the 1990s, and observe what happened in 2008. (Remember, justices like these in the past, decided slaves, like Dred Scott, were not citizens and had no rights, but corporations were people!)
Now, according to likeminded men, someone like Mr. McCutcheon, who lives in one state, can directly back political races simultaneously in numerous other states, spreading influence as far as their money will take them. And with the money such billionaires and some of their political organizations can throw at local campaigns, they can flood the TV airways with campaign commercials that support one candidate or attack another, making it difficult or impossible for the opposition to respond, and drowning out the ideas and the right of others to be heard. And it is working. The attack ad has become as ubiquitous in politics today as a commercial for bad breath. Say a falsehood often enough and people will believe it. (This is to say nothing about how such election outcomes impact voting districts and gerrymandering.) It also turns local politics in to national politics. Politicians are no longer beholden to only the local population for election, but also to those with deep (out of state) pocks. And if the politicians don’t do what these people want, they can find such money being funneled to someone else’s campaign. If this continues, the lesson here is people will have less control over their own political environment. Local populations can find themselves being governed by people who get their marching orders from a handful of others living perhaps a thousand miles away. And while these wealthy donors may deny it, those providing funds for elections always require payback, a quid pro quo if you will–be it voting for or against a bill or gaining greater access to the politician. This free flow of funds is also why many countries have gone to public financing of elections. It actually costs them less money and headaches in the long run. It should also be noted that while unions are now allowed to directly back politicians, private unions like the AFL and the CIO represent only about 7 percent of the workforce in the US–and they are shrinking and no match for corporate interests and the wealthy.
Is it mere coincidence then that such judicial decisions have come at this time in history? Unlikely! Fifty odd years ago the gap between the rich and the rest of the population had not reached critical mass, so to speak. In the 1950s, the average American chief executive was paid about 20 times as much as the typical employee of his firm. These days, looking at Fortune 500 companies, the pay ratio between the C.E.O. and the average worker is more than 200/1, and many C.E.O.s do much better. A typical worker at Walmart earns less than $25,000 a year, while a former C.E.O., was paid more than $23,000,000 in 2012. With the elite in control of such vast sums of money, the United States could be heading for economic and political conditions similar to those found in nineteenth-century Europe. At that time, Europe was dominated and characterized by a small group of wealthy individuals and family members, while the rest of the population struggled to keep up. Sound familiar? The United States seems to be on its way. Figures show that in 2010, the richest 10 percent of households controlled 70 percent of all the country’s wealth and the top 1 percent controlled 35 percent of the wealth. In contrast, the bottom 50 percent of households owned a mere 5 percent.
Is this really where the country stands after roughly 235 years of existence? Has it come down to the Supreme Court now essentially codifying the rights of the rich to dominate elections as a fundamental part of the US Constitution? Make no mistake about it, the Supreme Court has sent a constitutional precedent, a model for future judges to reference and employ as justification for future cases. This is exactly what the Supreme Court has done with these two rulings. Its main job is to interpret the Constitution, and to speak for the founders, as it were. In over 235 years of interpreting the constitution, these are the first justices to make this bold determination. Has it come down to the court proclaiming in a loud voice (not in a whisper like it might have done in the past) that money truly determines one’s worth in our political system? That money, and the power that comes with it, determines who has a say, or more to the point, the largest say on how things operate and are decided in this country. As if the rich and powerful didn’t have enough say before, and didn’t have enough access.
From recent Supreme Court decisions, it is obvious certain wealthy individuals were not satisfied with their role in politics or in how society operates, and want more power. In their minds, they know what is best for the rest of the society. And the Supreme Court has opened the door for them. With that opening, they have the means to get what they want. Remember, 10 percent controls 70 percent of the wealth. Obviously, with such wealth, they can raise an army of political and judicial followers to help them pursue their desires. And from such a beginning, there may develop a real and present danger to democracy and to real fairness in society, especially if this shift of power continues unabated. If indeed this is the new and accepted norm in the US, there will be a radical shift away from democratic rule to rule by plutocracy. And if history is any guide, it might be a generation or more before such a power structure can be toppled.
Actually, this type of thinking is nothing new to the world nor to the US. It seems every hundred years or so this idea of topdown superiority comes back in favor. None other than Alexander Hamilton, in the late 1700s, believed in democracy, but a democracy controlled by the elite. He didn’t think the fate of a country or a government should be left in the hands of the mob or the common people. He believed the bankers and the upper class should rule in the benign interest of all citizens. (As if that is possible.) So to in the late 1800s and early 1900s (the so-called Gilded Age), many industrialists as well as others believed in something called Social Darwinism. In an offshoot of Darwin’s evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, many believed the poor and lower classes were inferior and needed the guidance of the elite (their betters) in the making of laws, the running of government, and in all aspects of the economy. After all, there was a reason these people were lower on the social and economic scale. This was also a time when the middle class in the US, in terms of size, was in its infancy. Fortunately, the collective wisdom was found in the country to eventually counter this philosophy and political influence. But roughly a hundred years on from the days of Social Darwinism, the country is once again confronted by such topdown thinking. Will the nation have the collective wisdom this time around to reject this type of asymmetrical reasoning once again or will this new version of Social Darwinism dominate the political landscape for the foreseeable future?