It is not my intent to diminish the import or significance of the McCutcheon v FEC decision. Obviously, this court composition has shown itself to be happy to adjudicate cases erring on the side of pure Juris prudence even when in opposition to precedence. I have an opinion on that, but my current point is that THAT DISCUSSION about the make-up, activism, and bias of the court is not the story of democracy.
Let’s engage in an exercise where we actually break down the logic in the ways that we are taught as policy analyst rather than resorting to emotional reactions based on a basic mistrust of money. I am in favor of laws requiring full disclosure of donors and sources of sponsorship. Yet, I am not with those who lament that the latest Supreme Court decision on related to campaign finance spells doom to our democracy. My analysis pivots on two questions. First, what is the fundamental activity of our democracy? Second, how do we operationalize that fundamental activity?
These two questions are important because their answers demonstrate the perspective guiding those who answer. I am in favor of a perspective that recognizes how grassroots organizing carries the day beyond political ads and fundraising dinners. The bottom line is that if the candidates I support are upset because they are outmatched by the money, they have lost sight of the equation that 3.2 million dollars from one donor is matched with $1 from 3.2 million individuals. I will wait while you make the larger realization… 3.2 million individuals offer a greater voting block—the core of democracy—when compared to the money of one individual.
What is the fundamental activity of our democracy? It is the right and responsibility of every citizen to vote. Universally across the country, the voting experience is a private, unencumbered activity between an individual citizen and a ballot. In some polling places, the action is still shrouded in a booth with a physical curtain separating the voter from the influences of the world outside.
We must not lose sight of this fundamental activity. As policy analysts, we see content analysis as our opportunity to examine McCutcheon v FEC for its literal content. The decision limits the ability of the government to set limits on the contributions of any one citizen to a political campaign. Any argument based on the content of the decision necessarily sets up agreement or disagreement with governmental powers. We can have that discussion, even that disagreement, but the content of the case must not be a proxy for other discussions. The content of this case was not about corruption–bribery of elected officials. As shown in other criminal cases, most recently the verdict concerning Ray Nagin, the former New Orleans mayor, money accepted by elected officials in order to provide unfair advantage to donors remains illegal.
How do we operationalize that fundamental activity of democracy? We have to activate our abilities as citizens within our sphere of influence. Get involved at whatever level you are comfortable with. Then, challenge yourself to act beyond that level of comfort. Every phone call, every presentation, every door you knock on, every check you write counteracts the money spent. We have to educate ourselves, inform others, mobilize voters, and construct the narrative.
As policy analysts, we see process analysis a our chance to examine what the McCutcheon case will mean in practice. This is where every citizen has real opportunity. One characteristic that separates the wealthy from the middle and poor is their political activity. Wealthy folks, certainly for a number of reasons, are more politically active. Yet, as far back as Howard Dean fundraising and as recently as Obama 2008, we are witness to what well-organized, grassroots campaigns with dedicated volunteers can do.
This case is a good example. Keep in mind, according to the NY Times, 43 percent of the 1% are non-republican. Republican-leaning citizens making more than $500,000 per year are deficit over economy focused, comfortable with more non-government solutions, and active in politics. We cannot allow the faulty logic of money amplifying one opinion over another to mask the reality that we each have a way to provide alternatives to those highly financed voices. We can vote. What’s more, we can support the vote of others. Not just the right, but the actual activity. Realize what the NY Times revealed about those with money. They are politically active, and that activity is not confined only to making contributions. They support others to make contributions, but they also make phone calls, host dinners, message friends, and speak within their venues of influence. Do not fail to realize the reality that those venues have fewer people in attendance than the other 99% of venues.
Granted, the Citizens United decision allowed for contributions from corporations. Granted, this McCutcheon decision increases limits for individuals. Still, I would like to think that people make their decisions about who to elect based on merits and research rather than political ads and billboards. I am further willing to ensure that reality through informing others. I will reiterate my appeal that we support disclosure so that we know where the money comes from and who all the donors are.
Please do not acquiesce to the position that the people, all of us, are less powerful than the relatively few, extremely wealthy individuals. Once we give in to that view, it ceases to matter what the law is. At that point, we have relinquished our greatest power– to organize ourselves.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Constitution Center