The Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC is only the latest in a long line of setbacks for the cause of campaign finance reform. The robust, if insufficient, state and federal regulations which took decades to establish are being rapidly dismantled by what Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger dubbed “the 1 percent court” in our October 2012 special issue of that name. But the darkness of the present situation only throws into starker relief the need for genuine, radical reform—specifically, a mechanism for publicly financing political campaigns and a constitutional amendment ending the truly inane notion of corporate personhood.
As we wrote in our editorial after the disastrous Citizens United decision of 2010, “The Nation is committed to the struggle as one that is in the noblest traditions of this magazine.” Indeed, as early as 1936, our Washington Weekly columnist Paul W. Ward wrote in “Can the Presidency Be Bought?” that American politics was dangerously close to being entirely controlled by the richest people in the country.
Enormous sums are spent on printing or broadcasting the output of the campaign committees’ research and publicity divisions, and most of it is stupid, ineffectual stuff. At best the output of one division tends to do nothing more than cancel out that of its rival…The money that counts, the money spent on getting out the vote, goes for hiring cars to take voters to the polls and for hiring runners to see that the cars are kept busy and filled.
The big money comes of course form the only possible source—the men and corporations that have it to give.
Thirty years later, former Nation managing editor Victor H. Bernstein wrote in “Private Wealth and Public Office: The High Cost of Campaigning” (June 27, 1966), that only a public-subsidy system for financing campaigns could ensure the absence of purchased influence and outright corruption:
Aside from affirming the logical principle that running for public office is properly a public enterprise, and therefore should be publicly financed, the subsidy system offers certain specific advantages. It involves every taxpayer in every election, at least financially; it makes the legislator more (or entirely) independent of private interests, and it increases the political opportunity of men without access to wealth.
Two months after President Nixon signed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and two months before Nixon-aligned burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building, Richard Max McCarthy, a former congressman from upstate New York, wrote an article for The Nation titled “A Little Law for a Big Job” (April 3, 1972). McCarthy argued that the new bill—the first substantive campaign finance reform in American history—“continues to allow millions of dollars to flow into campaign chests from wealthy individuals and special interest groups, who expect and usually receive favors in return,” whereas a true genuine reform “would provide for the public financing of campaigns for all federal offices and thus rid politics of the corrupting influence of private-interest money.”