You can buy politicians, says US Supreme Court

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Ayesha Alam

Sha'ban 03, 1435 2014-06-01

News & Analysis

by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 4, Sha'ban, 1435)

America has the best democracy money can buy. This has become even truer with the latest Supreme Court decision. America is now an oligarchy rather than a democracy and the highest court has confirmed it.

The US Supreme Court decision to officially dismantle one of the remaining limits preventing wealthy donors to buy US election campaigns through large sums of cash has opened the floodgates to even greater levels of corruption. In a 5 to 4 decision on April 3, 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional limit on how much individuals can contribute to political campaigns in a two-year cycle.

The case is titled McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, after the suit of wealthy Republican Party donor Shaun McCutcheon. McCutcheon has argued that the Watergate-era laws on campaign finance restrict his right to “free speech.” His lawsuit was endorsed by the Republican National Committee and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell; and the five judges who ruled in favor of it were all appointed by Republican presidents.

McCutcheon argued that aggregate limits on individual contributions to electoral campaigns within a single two-year cycle prohibited “free speech” and hence, was undemocratic. The Supreme Court concurred, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing in his ruling, “Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

This decision buttresses the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This disastrous ruling opened up the field to wealthy corporations, allowing them to independently spend millions of dollars to swing elections for a favored candidate.

Many commentators have noted that such decisions have effectively transformed US democracy into a bona fide electoral oligarchy. “If these advocate limitations go down, 500 people will control American democracy. It would be ‘government for the 500 people,’ not for anybody else — and that’s the risk,” says Burt Neuborne, law professor and legal director of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Neuborne has illustrated the problem of the situation, and how it will accelerate the US’ decline into autocratic dictatorship. “[Now] you have these extraordinarily wealthy people — the Koch brothers or George Soros, on the other side — pouring huge amounts of their own money in.” As with the 2012 presidential election, the effect of domestic electoral law has enormous ramifications for US foreign policy. Many wealthy donors are extreme right-wing and/or Zionist, and by permitting them to gain even greater influence over the United States, the US is likely to become even more militaristic and heavy handed in the Muslim world.

Even right-wing Republican Senator John McCain weighed in, voicing his thoughts on the damage that the recent spate of Supreme Court decisions have inflicted on a political system that pretends to be based on public participation. “I predict that as a result of recent Court decisions, there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again,” said Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and coauthor of 2002 campaign finance legislation that has been mostly upended by the courts.

Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, said the decision further cements the impression that political influence can be bought. “There is some validity to the idea that our political system is influenced by money and that money speaks louder than the voice of individuals or even groups of citizens,” Solomont said. “This is eating away at our democracy.”

Perhaps the strongest indictment comes from one of the Supreme Court Justices penning the minority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority, said the decision “understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions.” Breyer further wrote, “Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

McCutcheon preserves the $2,600 cap on an individual’s contribution to a candidate in primary election and general election in a 2-year election cycle, but it abolishes the limit on the number of candidates to which an individual can contribute. The Court ruling has fundamentally altered the stakes of the November 2014 mid-term elections, opening up state elections to an influx of funds and private money looking to purchase political influence. This makes members of Congress even more susceptible to largesse of well-heeled private individuals, opening up the halls of the US Representatives and Senate to what used to be called bribery.

For a right-wing Supreme Court, “free speech” has become justification to clamp down on just laws and initiatives safeguarding the public rights for the sake of protecting the profit margins of big business. For instance, when women rights activists tried to pass a law against pornography, arguing that the XXX industry dehumanized women and led to violence against them, the Supreme Court struck it down on a “free speech” argument.

At the same time, the Supreme Court is eroding some of the most significant freedoms in the US Constitution. “Continuing a decade-long trend of attacking and eroding legal remedies for racial inequality, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act — the most powerful and productive civil rights provision secured through the Civil Rights Movement’s bloodiest struggles against racial domination,” noted a 2013 article published by three UCLA law professors, Devon Carbado, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Cheryl Harris. With the recent rulings on electoral reform, the US Supreme Court, constitutionally designed as the strongest check on the political abuses of power, has proved that it has become the unabashed cheerleader of crony capitalism and institutionalized racism.

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