Sunday, January 24, 2010

Democracy for sale

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Last week's landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission reverses a long-standing trend toward more-representative elections in the United States.

Across the centuries, America's politics have become more open to participation by non-property-holding males, people of color, and women. The challenge for modern times was the disproportionate influence of money on elections. How is one-person, one-vote democracy made real? How does the vote of the American earning $50,000 a year count as much as that of an executive or banker who takes home a compensation package in the millions?

The answer was limits on campaign contributions from companies, banks, unions, and other powerful entities. These laws came about after the Watergate scandal and included collaborative efforts such as the one led by the Senate's most liberal Democratic member, Russ Feingold, and the conservative Republican presidential nominee of 2008, John McCain.

The Supreme Court's stunning 5-4 decision threw out this bipartisan bid to level the election playing field. It said that companies, unions, banks, and investment houses can put as much money into candidates' political campaigns as they like - all ostensibly in the name of free speech.

The absurdity of this philosophy and the five justices' bias toward those with access to big money are there for all to see. The court wants us to believe that, in giving money to a candidate, a schoolteacher can have as much influence in terms of free speech on the outcome of an election as Goldman Sachs or the United Steelworkers.

Supreme Court decisions are not supposed to be partisan, but it is no coincidence that all five justices in the majority were named by Republican presidents. Republicans do far better than Democrats in collecting contributions from the corporate and financial worlds, while the Democrats are better at raking it in from unions, whose pockets are not as deep as GOP benefactors'.
So where are average Americans left in voting for candidates without succumbing to the undue influence of big campaign donors? The first line of defense is partly up to the media. It becomes much more important than ever for the press to dig out assiduously and make public where candidates get their money.

Second, if a person is a member or shareholder of an organization that is making big campaign contributions, it is vital to know to whom, how much, and why.

Third, it becomes more necessary to look with great skepticism on the claims that candidates make in the media and in commercials, mailings, or phone messages in response to big-donor money.

The most terrifying aspect of this decision is the increased power it gives lobbyists over candidates. Their new ability to say, if you don't vote our way we will bury you with contributions to the opposition, could extinguish the notion of government for the people and give rise to government for those who prey on the people.

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