It’s difficult to believe, but the 2012 election cycle is already in full swing. So once again, for the next eighteen months, we will be inundated with stories of $5000-per-plate fundraising dinners, attack ads featuring our “favorite” politicians, and an overwhelming air of American excess. In the land of plenty, there’s plenty of campaign money to be scrounged, if only you know where to look.
President Obama has an early start. He has already announced his intention to raise one billion dollars for his re-election campaign. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
$1,000,000,000. That is one million dollars, collected one thousand times. The literal meaning of “ridiculous”—deserving of ridicule—certainly applies to this gilded simulacrum of the democratic process.
With egregious corporate bailouts and an astronomical national debt, it is easy to overlook just how much a billion dollars really is. In the interest of providing a frame of reference, it should be noted that the first person even have a net worth of $1 billion—depending on who you ask—was most likely John D. Rockefeller who, by the time he was done bleeding money from the ground in 1937, was worth an estimated $1.4 billion. In other words, for almost 37,000 years of human history, no one even had a billion dollars, but 74 years after the existence of the first billionaire, a single person is planning on spending a billion dollars to purchase the office of President of the United States. As another example, President Obama’s campaign will cost more than GDP of 25 different U.N.-recognized countries and territories. This is certainly not Obama’s fault, nor is it the fault of any opportunistic candidate. In fact, in our cash-centric political process, this type of fundraising might be considered a candidate’s due diligence. The problem is that becoming an elected official has become such a wealthy venture that our votes have decreased in value to the point of triviality. There are numerous reasons for this “effective disenfranchisement,” but I will focus on the damage done by enormous campaign contributions.
The ability of individuals to acquire varying amounts of wealth due to unique ideas, hard work, and personal merit is one of our greatest birthrights as Americans. Those who are wealthy, even the super-rich, should not be derided solely on the basis of their economic status, just as poverty-stricken Americans should not be considered with an air of disdain simply because they are poor. However, citizens can be justifiably incensed when colossal sums of money overwhelm the democratic process and effectively disenfranchise the average voter. Massive sums of cash turn politics into a “zero-sum game,” a mathematical concept that essentially means that by increasing the “winnings” of Player A, the “losses” of Player B must be exactly reciprocal. To illustrate this concept, imagine two people holding wicker baskets, with five apples in each basket. If Player A takes two apples from Player B’s basket, Player A now has seven apples, and Player B now has three. There are still ten apples in play, but the gains of Player A are directly opposite the losses of Player B. A simple numeric representation—(+2/-2)—now explains why this type of game is referred to as “zero-sum”. If you add the gains of Player A to the losses of Player B—positive two plus negative two—you end up with zero; thus, a zero-sum game.
In a non-zero-sum game, we could imagine a “community basket” placed in the middle of our two basket-wielding players, filled with five additional apples. Player A could take two apples from the community basket and now have the same total number of apples—seven—that he had in our first game. Player B, on the other hand, while he may not gain any apples during this new game, does not have to lose any apples in order for Player A to gain apples. This differs from our first game, because of the existence of said “community basket.” Using a numerical representation similar to our first one, we would get (+2/0). In a simple equation, 2+0=2; thus, our community basket allows the creation of a non-zero-sum game. So why is this important?
Introducing huge amounts of money turns the electoral process into a zero-sum game; by increasing their influence via money, wealthy Americans now have the ability to vote, as well as influential money. Unfortunately, the influential money makes the votes in our “basket” much less valuable. Thus, our “wealthy player” has gained political influence at the expense of “our basket” having been rendered virtually worthless. Zero-sum games are not intrinsically negative in economic terms, but certainly not a just way to run a democracy. Money devalues individual votes and cheapens the process as a whole. While it is true that campaign spending and the act of voting are two separate mechanisms, and no amount of money can compel you to vote a certain way, they are nevertheless inextricably linked, and the former boasts far greater influence than the latter.
A Grievous Blow to Democracy
In January 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 split decision the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional—per the First Amendment—to restrict the amount of money that unions and corporations can spend on political campaigns, effectively reversing the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. In a ninety-page dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the Court’s decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”
In usual arch-conservative form, Justice Scalia opined that Justice Stevens was “in splendid isolation from the text of the First Amendment. [Stevens’ opinion] never shows why ‘the freedom of speech’ that was the right of Englishmen did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.” In addition, Majority Whip and constant terrapine annoyance Mitch McConnell had previously bloviated that “Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all,” in regard to the original McCain-Feingold ruling; a vapid and fatuous proclamation clearly intended for use as a cable news sound bite. What seems to have been forgotten by our esteemed Justices is that while individuals may contribute large sums of money to a political campaign, there are still limits to spending per election as well as spending per year. If restricting the amount of money a corporation can spend is allegedly a violation of the First Amendment, how is limiting the contributions of an individual citizen legally justified?
A Return to Reason
Unfortunately, these are consequences a democracy faces when appeals and judicial rulings—otherwise known as “common law”—abandon reasoned logic in favor of fierce, pseudo-patriotic loyalty to the so-called “literal” interpretation of the Constitution, which is contrary to the original intent of the document’s framers. I agree completely that anytime speech is restricted, we must do so only in the face of overwhelming necessity, and with ultimate caution. In most cases, legitimate restrictions on speech are created to avoid public chaos or physical harm, as is the case for “clear and present danger” restrictions and the restrictions placed on hate speech. In that vein, the virtual disenfranchisement of the majority of citizens should undoubtedly be considered as dangerous as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Additionally, no reasonable, impartial citizen would argue that the words that you are currently reading are literally or legally identical to the contents of my wallet. We can use a syllogism—essentially the “transitive property” of algebra created by Aristotle—to show very simply why such an argument is logically fallacious:
1.) Speech is always composed of words, thoughts, or ideas.
2.) Money is never composed of words, thoughts, or ideas.
3.) Therefore, speech is never money, and money is never speech.
Now, I understand that in terms of commerce, “voting with dollars” is a legitimate, useful, and time-honored tradition. But when dealing with the law, we must always strive to ensure that our societal biases do not interfere with our ability to objectively evaluate the logic behind a given law. The governance of a people must adhere as strictly as possible to the tenets of logic in order to establish a level playing field for the entire citizenry. Equating speech and money in lay situations is perfectly acceptable because the consequences of such a relationship have little or no effect on the population as a whole, since an individual is never compelled to buy a certain company’s product. On the other hand, legally equating speech and money—given our current electoral paradigm—inherently awards a disproportionate amount of influence to those with vast wealth since we are collectively compelled, by law, to follow the edicts of our elected officials and thus, by extension, those who paid for the successful election. The allowance of unlimited campaign contributions legally bestows unequal political influence on certain individuals or groups based solely on the size of their bank account; a hallmark of plutocracy, and the bane of democracy. While the Koch brothers are doing their best impression of the Renaissance-era Medici family in Ohio and Wisconsin, the citizens of those states are literally powerless to halt the damaging and potentially irreversible actions of their elected governors, two of the Koch brothers’ most recent investments.
Now that I’ve aired my complaints, I suppose it would only be fair if I offered a potential solution. Since I’ve mentioned them quite a few times thus far, let us begin from a place of logic and reason. Occam’s razor is a concept which explains that given multiple solutions to a problem, and all outcomes being equal, the best solution is the most accurate and most succinct solution. With respect to Occam’s Razor, it would seem that setting a hard cap on dollars spent by a citizen per election (say, $100) and setting a hard cap on donations per year (something like $2000) would level the playing field enormously for the electorate as a whole while reducing the complexity of current campaign financing laws. With fewer dollars in the “political pool,” the value of each individual donation rises dramatically, as does the value of each vote. In addition, any group of people should be completely barred from contributing to campaigns as a group. In other words, if the Local Pipefitters 243 or the shareholders of Company X decide that, in order to make a statement, they will pool their funds and will each send their allotted $100 to Barack Obama or *shudder* Sarah Palin, that would be a perfectly acceptable practice as no “extra votes” are being added to the election. However, both the Pipefitters and Company X shareholders would be disallowed from contributing money as a group that did not come directly from their legally restricted, individual $100 limit.
Not a single citizen could claim that their right to free speech was being infringed upon; they have their vote, and they have their $100 check. If you want to do more in service to your preferred candidate or cause, hold a rally, send out flyers, or make phone calls, much like wealthy donors and politicians encourage less affluent or younger voters to do. Imagine how much more excited a high school senior would be about his government if he knew his $20 contribution was actually meaningful! If he can manage to donate twenty bucks five times, he has just “voiced” the strongest possible monetary support allowed by law! Is there anyone who honestly believes such engagement could, in any way, be construed as negative? Apparently Anne Coulter could, as she self-avowedly favors disenfranchising college students. I suppose that such a deplorable stance should be expected from this type of woman, whose pitiable existence is predicated upon receiving as much negative attention as humanly possible at the intellectual expense of anyone who has had the misfortune of hearing the hateful screeches and squawks that she routinely discharges. Aside from Coulter’s self-aggrandizing and pretentious opinion, the benefits of increased civic engagement, especially among American youth, are quite obvious.
And let’s not forget that under this new, donation-capped system, corporations could still potentially take official positions on candidates and issues. If Company X has ten board members that would like to donate to a certain candidate, they could pool their funds and donate a total of $1000 to said candidate. This is an excellent example of “group free speech”—which Justice Scalia supposedly supports—that does no harm to the average citizen. Such caps and restrictions would turn politics back into a non-zero-sum game, since corporate contributions—which would simply be a collection of individual contributions—would not devalue your vote or my vote, since our votes and $100 checks are only competing with the votes and $100 checks of other citizens. This differs from our current model which allows corporations—and unions, to be fair—to artificially introduce extra influence into politics that is superfluous to the actual process of democratically electing our leaders. Someone is going to be President no matter how much money gets spent, so why not attempt to make the process more accessible and engaging to the average citizen? We did away with property requirements and poll taxes so that a greater number of Americans could become involved politically. Donation caps are a natural extension of these policies. Unfortunately, politicians–and their wealthy patrons–have a personal financial stake in the perpetuation of our current system of election. We must demand reform despite such resistance in order to return some semblance of integrity to a process that has been perverted into a depressing charade.
If Not Now, When?
In 2008, only 57% of voting-age Americans participated in the presidential election. Compare this to Lincoln’s election in 1860 in which over 81% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot. Surely our population hasn’t been replaced by apathetic Pod People, and to simply blame low turnout on voter laziness is disingenuous, or at least unverifiable. Though I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen, I have always, sadly, considered it to be a futile and hollow gesture. With true campaign finance reform similar to what I have suggested here, gone would be lavish fundraisers with inevitably exclusive price tags. Suddenly, every constituent would be worth $100 at most, and we might witness the emergence of fund-raising rallies with thousands of attendees as the main source of campaign funding, rather than the current paradigm of exclusive, high-yield gatherings held behind closed doors. Hopefully, we will reflect back upon this practice of buying elections with a disdain similar to that which we reserve for the long-term disenfranchisement of African-Americans and women; as immoral, unjust, and damaging policies that were considered customary for a shamefully long portion of our history. Maybe President Obama’s cartoonishly-bloated campaign will one day be retrospectively appraised as the nadir of money-driven politics, and the genesis of true reform. As Thomas Paine so eloquently observed in his seminal pamphlet Common Sense, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” In the interest of creating a just system of democratic election true to the ideals of the brilliant Greek philosophers from whom the concept at least partially originated, let us hope that in this case, reason will conquer time.