If we’ve learned anything over the past year about politics in America, it is that our governmental institutions have become extremely corrupt. Though there have been a few dissenting voices among the throng of corporate sponsored career politicians, the media will often dismiss or even refuse to pay any attention to those who take a more sensible approach to leadership. Obviously, the spectacle of controversy and political infighting are much more beneficial for increasing viewership and ratings. So media outlets have no real incentive to report on the practical ideas of our more rational legislators and Presidential candidates, especially when there are much more obnoxious, opinionated, polarizing people demanding and even paying for more attention.
On the national level, our country is most certainly rife with corruption. Thanks to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision made by the Supreme Court more than 5 years ago, money now runs politics more than ever before. As stated by election law specialist Anthony J. Gaughan in a U.S. News article from October 2015:
“The Citizens United ruling gave rise to super PACs, fundraising behemoths that put candidates and parties at an appalling disadvantage. For example, while the Federal Election Campaign Act bars individual donors from giving more than $2,700 to a federal candidate, the Citizens United decision allows the same donor to contribute millions to a super PAC. Consequently, super PAC fundraising now far surpasses that of candidates and parties.
The sad reality is the court’s rulings force our elected officials to spend more time fundraising than crafting public policy, a development that has promoted deep and abiding public distrust of our government. Clearly, we need a new approach to campaign finance law.”
Essentially, the Citizens United decision created an atmosphere in American politics where the influence of money is equal to free speech. And in a electoral framework where unlimited campaign contributions can be made by corporations, who are considered legal persons with the same rights as individuals, the end result will inevitably be a system embroiled in political corruption. Benjamin I. Paige, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University illustrates the situation nicely and offers some solutions on the Scholars Strategy Network:
“In sum, the net effects of money in politics include distraction from the public business, exacerbation of polarization and gridlock, and distortion of policy making in wasteful, inefficient, and anti-democratic directions. These are not trivial costs to American democracy, and their impact raises the obvious question: what can be done? There is little immediate prospect for a Supreme Court decision or Constitutional amendment to reduce the impact of money on politics. But the effects of big private money could be greatly diluted through public funding – for example, by letting all citizens contribute with “democracy vouchers” (as legal expert Larry Lessig has proposed) or instituting some other system of matching small contributions. To make something like this happen – over the likely resistance of wealthy big contributors – would require a broad, bipartisan social movement. Citizens of various ideological persuasions would have to join together, much as Americans once did in broad reform movements during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century.”
Clearly the time has come for the people to join together and take action. This issue isn’t one that primarily affects one political party or another. However it does keep us enmeshed within a limiting two party system that continuously fails to represent the will of the people in favor of satisfying lobbyist groups, corporations, and other monied interests.
Earlier this year, The Intercept_ published a list of quotes by politicians, admitting that money basically controls politics in America. Some of these quotations date back to the turn of the last century, but the bulk of these sentiments were expressed within the last five or six years, during our modern era of unfettered financial political contributions. Many of these statements were also made by U.S. Senators, and even one from the current Vice President was included. One of the most telling was spoken by former Michigan congressman John Dingell, just before his retirement. In it, he said:
“Allowing people and corporate interest groups and others to spend an unlimited amount of unidentified money has enabled certain individuals to swing any and all elections, whether they are congressional, federal, local, state … Unfortunately and rarely are these people having goals which are in line with those of the general public. History well shows that there is a very selfish game that’s going on and that our government has largely been put up for sale.”
As we begin a new year, let us consider what we’d like to see our nation, our states, our cities, and our local communities become. If we cannot trust our leaders to make decisions based on our collective voices and create public policies that reflect the will of the people, then we truly have no voice. If money rules politics, those who have the financial means to influence politics will be the only ones with any say. 2016 is shaping up to a momentous year, as we elect a new President and many new legislators, and several states will make decisions on various important ballot proposals as well. If we want to have any influence on the future of our country, state, or city, we have to be willing to speak up, petition, and vote for the people and initiatives that will actually represent us.