A decade of eroding democracy

Imagine for a moment that you just arrived on the shores of America with no prior knowledge of our politics, except that we purport to elect our leaders by popular vote. How might you imagine that process?

If you knew absolutely nothing about modern elections in the United States, you might presume that nearly everyone eligible to vote does vote. You might think that all candidates for office operate on a reasonably level playing field. You would suppose that we have some mechanism in place to ensure that each candidate has an equal opportunity to get his or her message to the masses.

You would probably assume that the United States has in place safeguards to limit access to the most powerful and wealthy individuals. To protect the rights of the weakest among her citizens to have the same access to elected officials and candidates for office.

You might think every citizen of this great nation has an equal voice in choosing her leaders and an equal opportunity to influence those leaders once in office.

You’d be dead wrong.

American elections — particularly but not exclusively at the national level — are tortuously long, ridiculously expensive and extremely inefficient.

But by far, the most dreadful shortcoming of our current system is the unequal access to the halls of power granted to (or withheld from) voters.

Not surprisingly, every politician, once elected, wishes to remain in power for as long as possible. Elections are lengthy and expensive. Almost as soon as they are elected, they immediately go into fundraising mode.

Think about that for a moment. It’s one of those ideas we’ve lived with so long that we scarcely pause to consider the absurdity of it. Our elected leaders spend more time and energy raising money to stay in office than they do in governing.

The corollary is those same elected leaders are more accountable to moneyed interests than they are to you and me.

A busy congressperson or president has a finite amount of time. They can’t afford to waste any of it. If I were to call the White House switchboard today and ask to speak to the president, or the vice-president, or even his chief of staff, what are the chances I could get through for a 10-minute chat about my concerns?

But what if, instead of me, it was Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or Charles Koch calling? Is there any doubt any of these well-heeled people would get right through?

This is a notion that’s not revelatory to anyone. We accept that those with money and power have greater sway with government officials. But is that healthy for democracy? Is it fair? Why do we tolerate it?

Ten years ago this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. The Court bizarrely held the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting campaign expenditures by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions and other associations.

In short, the Court extended the constitutional protection of free speech held by individuals — to corporations. In that decade, we have watched our democratic institutions erode in their representation of voters.

Citizens United opened the floodgates, making a bad situation worse. Today, there is virtually unlimited spending on political campaigns, and most of it is paid for not by individual campaigns or parties, but by so-called “Super PACs.” These shadowy entities are created to promote candidates and funded by corporate interests and billionaire activists.

They are not accountable to anyone and allow candidates to use them to say things they can’t or won’t say through their own campaigns. They’re essentially loose cannons.

How can we take back our elections, and more importantly, our government? Nothing short of radical, comprehensive campaign finance reform will do. We’ll be talking more about this soon.

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on January 23, 2020.

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