Here we are, 150 years after President Abraham’s Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. Now, our democracy is imperiled not by guns and bullets, but by the greed of the rich.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case struck down federal limits on the overall campaign cash that big donors may give individual candidates, political parties, and political action committees.
How does that square with Lincoln’s 1863 declaration at Gettysburg that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth”?
The McCutcheon ruling, combined with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, represents a one-two punch to the face of American Democracy. McCutcheon’s likely legacy will be the creation of mammoth “Super PACs,” financed by unlimited contributions from the wealthy and the corporations they leverage.
Our nation’s campaign finance system creates an inherent risk that politicians will care more about the people paying for their electoral bids with donations than the people who vote for them.
Together with other similar Supreme Court rulings, the McCutcheon and Citizens United cases are eroding our democracy in many ways.
First, they’re increasing the influence that money wields in politics. By raising the maximum contributions donors can make to election campaigns — both directly and indirectly — these rulings made it much easier for the deepest pockets to win support of politicians.
The buck doesn’t stop on Election Day either. These mega-donors cash in on their political “investments” once their man or woman gets sworn in (which is why many contribute to the candidates of both parties) to make certain their personal needs trump priorities for the general public.
Second, the heaps of money perverting our democracy make it harder for most people to run for office. Unless you’ve got your own personal fortune or a bunch of millionaire and billionaire buddies, you simply can’t run. Our leaders shouldn’t lead lives so removed from the challenges the rest of us have to deal with day-to-day that they identify more with rich people looking for another tax break than a working mom trying to find affordable child care.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
States across the country have taken the lead to get big money out of politics by passing comprehensive campaign finance reform that favors the public financing of elections — more than half of the states now have some form of this kind of law on the books.
In February, Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, introduced the Government by the People Act and Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, introduced the Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate.
This legislation would transform the current system to reduce big money’s outsized influence. The bills would boost the clout of small donors and help millions more Americans play a key role in our politics.
USAction, the organization I lead, and more than 40 other national groups support this legislation. The McCutcheon ruling, which the Supreme Court handed down in early April, simply makes a bad system worse.
Congress must respond swiftly to salvage our democracy and create the conditions in which a government that is of, by, and for the people can flourish.