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.”
Soon enough, the Watergate break-in—financed by Nixon campaign funds—demonstrated conclusively that radical changes were needed to restore integrity to the democratic process.
In “How to Cure the Corruption” (September 17, 1973), Senator Alan Cranston of California wrote candidly about the need for candidates to accept large campaign donations and the influence donors inevitably then have on the crafting of national policy and law:
The effect of large contributions on the victorious candidate is sometimes blatant, but usually subtle. He knows his victory was won in part by the generosity of those individuals who made large donations. He knows who they are; he remembers their names and the names of their companies.
If he is an honest man, he will not let big contributors determine how he is going to vote. But even the honest public official finds that he must give to the big donor’s concerns his time and attention, his sympathetic ear, his willingness to intervene when he can do so legitimately.
The officeholder recognizes that while some big givers contribute solely for the sake of good government and a belief in the candidate and his principles, they are a minority. He knows that the majority expect their contributions will at least give them access to him. And access, at the least, means the ability to drop in anytime for an informal visit or to present their views before the officeholder acts on an issue.
Cranston argued that the only solution was publicly financed campaigns, which would enable candidates to spend more time winning votes from ordinary Americans than soliciting checks from powerful corporate interests. He also noted that the minor surtax rendered on citizens to pay for campaigns was actually much less than they were already paying when their tax dollars are used to pay back the corporations to whom elected officials owe their electoral victories:
The fact is that big campaign contributions buy economic privileges of various kinds, like tax breaks, exceptions to the law, special subsidies or careless law enforcement. Every one of these economic privileges takes money out of the pockets of the average American taxpayer. By spending $1 to $2 a year the average citizen could get back literally hundreds of dollars in the form of fairer taxes, more competitive prices and better quality consumer products…. Ending our electoral system’s dependence on large private donations may be the most crucial issue of our time. It goes to the very heart of our democratic process. How we resolve it will in turn determine how we resolve every other problem our nation faces.
* * *
On May 5, 1997, The Nation published a special issue on campaign finance: “Dollar Democracy: Can We Stop It?” featuring an investigation by Ken Silverstein, “My Life as an Undercover PAC.” Silverstein, posing as a moneyman for the fictional United Broadcasting Corporation, gained access to powerful officials and their aides of which ordinary Americans can only dream. He reflected on what he had learned:
As my brief career as a Beltway power broker indicates, Washington remains supremely unmoved by the public’s growing contempt for business as usual in the capital. Indeed, no one here believes that Congress will approve serious campaign finance reform anytime soon. “Everybody’s wringing their hands and calling for change,” says Kenneth Gross, the former F.E.C. enforcer, “but there’s nothing in the cards beyond reform around the edges.” He foresees no more than a crackdown on foreign contributions and some limits on soft money.
The wild card is public opinion, which is sufficiently inflamed could force more dramatic action. Thus far, however, the public appears to be angry but apathetic. “Most Americans believe Congress is a cesspool but people are very cynical,” says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group. “They don’t believe that anything is going to be changed by Congress, which created the current system and all of the loopholes in it.”
Meanwhile, for corporate America and other high-rollers, democracy remains a commodity. A Democratic Party official once summed up the situation perfectly in explaining to me why offering perks to big donors didn’t result in unwarranted access for private interests. “It’s like flying,” she said. “Some sit in first class and some sit in coach.”
In the same issue, Dan Hamburg, a former congressman from California, took readers “Inside the Money Chase,” where the need for raising money—as Cranston and McCarthy had previously argued—undermined the very legitimacy of the United States government.
The issue of campaign finance points to a deeper problem in U.S. politics: the subservience of the political system to the economic system. The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture. The covenant between the citizen and the law, as recapitulated through the electoral process, has lost its meaning. Campaign finance is a useful way of looking into a larger question: In an era of increasing economic globalism, when the state itself is fast becoming a subordinate entity, what is the relevance of being an American citizen?
* * *
In “Democracy Inc.” (February 15, 2010), our lead editorial after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and business associations, The Nation called the case “a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.”
As we had for decades, The Nation reiterated that public financing of public campaigns—and the ejection of private wealth from the public sphere—was the only way to reclaim American democracy for ordinary people.
We will do everything in our power to further it, with no quarter for cynicism or compromise. We will encourage the development of a transformational movement to protect free elections and free government, and will do so with the understanding that the cause is not a narrowly partisan one, or a project merely of progressives, but of all who want democracy to flourish.
Committed to open dialogue, at the one-year anniversary of Citizens United we opened our pages to a debate between the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the court’s decision, and the former ACLU director (and Nation contributor since 1984) Burt Neuborne, who opposed it.
Abrams wrote that Justice Kennedy’s decision was rightly based in “two well-established legal propositions”: first, that political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and second, that corporations are entitled to protection under the First Amendment. “The notion that no serious First Amendment challenge was raised in Citizens United is itself a myth,” Abrams argued.
For the nays, Burt Neuborne wrote:
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United granting corporations a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums to win an election, we are facing a second Gilded Age where American democracy is for sale to the highest corporate bidder. Justice Kennedy’s opinion, touted by some as a great victory for free speech, begins with a glaring First Amendment mistake. Kennedy claims that the case is about the constitutionality of discriminating between two categories of First Amendment speakers—corporations and human beings. But that just begs the question. The real issue in Citizens United was whether corporations should be viewed as First Amendment speakers in the first place. The business corporation is an artificial state-created entity with unlimited life; highly favorable techniques for acquiring, accumulating and retaining vast wealth through economic transactions having nothing to do with politics; and only one purpose—making money. Human beings, on the other hand, die, do not enjoy economic advantages like limited liability and, most important, have a conscience that sometimes transcends crude economic self-interest. Those dramatic differences raise a threshold question, ignored by Justice Kennedy, about whether corporations are even in the First Amendment ballpark.
McCutcheon shows that this Supreme Court—as currently constituted—will stop at nothing less than a complete rollback of all the hard-won campaign-finance protections which, despite their limitations, at least acted as a counterforce to the tidal waves of money in politics that the court’s recent decisions have allowed to flow unimpeded. If there is any silver lining to McCutcheon, it is that this new reality lays bare for all to see that the only truly democratic solution, the only genuine reform, is the same as it has always been, the one The Nation has advocated for decades: take the money out of electoral politics and return democracy to the people.
Read Next: David Halperin: The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC.
* * *
Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.