The advance of dark money in politics has severely hurt our democracy, and the possibility of a liberal appointee to the Supreme Court might change that. Here’s why that’s important:
An American political campaign is excessively long and excessively expensive. Prior to the 1976 presidential election, most presidential candidates announced their candidacy the year of the election, sometimes less than 200 days before the election. Campaigns, however, have only been getting longer since then. Ted Cruz became the first presidential candidate to declare his candidacy in the 2016 race, approximately 600 days before election day.
Common sense dictates that longer campaigns require more money, and the increasingly longer campaigns have indeed cost more money. Adjusted for inflation, the 1976 election cost nearly 300 million dollars. The 2008 election, in contrast, cost about 1.2 billion dollars, according to the Federal Election Commission. And due to the controversial 5-4 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision, corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political issues. The rationale was that “corporations are people” and that money is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. The result was a 2012 election that cost over 2.5 billion dollars according to CNNPolitics. The 2016 election is estimated to swell to 5 billion.
To this effect, America is largely alone on the world stage. Our Mexican neighbors, by law, cannot have elections lasting longer than 147 days. The United Kingdom’s elections rarely exceed 42 days. Our Canadian neighbors have campaigns that regularly last 36 days. French elections last 14 days. Japanese elections last a mere 12 days. The costs of elections in these countries are either capped or inherently lower by virtue of a shorter election cycle. The U.K., for instance, spent about 45 million dollars on its last election according to the BBC, less than two percent the cost of the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2010 congressional election, less than three-tenths of one percent of the American population contributed more than 200 dollars to candidates, but that minuscule portion provided two-thirds of the campaign funds that year. Moreover, an astonishing New York Times article broke the news that a mere 158 families — out of more than 120,000,000 American families — had financed more than half of the early money for efforts to capture the White House.
In this way, today’s democracy is skewed. Those with more money naturally get more representation — particularly in a modern environment of disproportionate income inequality. The channels legalized by Citizens United and extensively long and expensive campaign races have forced our representatives into valuing the interests of the very rich and elite few, over the interests of the vast majority of Americans. And it makes sense why this is the case. According to the Brookings Institute, an average successful campaign to the House of Representatives costs in excess of a million dollars. An average successful campaign to the Senate costs upwards of 10 million dollars.
And that’s a problem, because it restricts ordinary citizens from starting campaigns and getting elected — keeping Congress a millionaires-club detached from the hardships that inflict the average American. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, over half of Congressional representatives (271 of the 533 incumbent members) have over a million dollars net-worth. While less than one percent of Americans are millionaires, two-thirds of Senate members are millionaires.
And having no campaign caps means that virtually anyone can funnel millions of their own fortune to campaigns, if they can afford to, and in principle buy a Congressional seat, or in theory, even a presidential election. Our democracy functions more like an oligarchy when a select few can secretly influence elections to suit their political interests.
Under such a system, the concept of one-man-one-vote thus becomes irrelevant in a political landscape where one family or a single corporation can covertly influence hundreds or thousands of votes via unlimited funds. Under such a system, politicians are lobbied before they’re even elected. Under such a system, representative government fails to represent the people, and instead represents a few people.
Clearly we’re not perfect. We’ve turned a blind eye to our democratic values on so many other fronts. The Electoral College is obsolete. Keeping it as mere tradition, we threaten democracy each and every election. Our voting machines are outdated. Our Tuesday election day is antiquated. Election day isn’t a national holiday — helping the U.S. have one of the lowest voter turn-outs in the developed world. The practice of gerrymandering has undemocratically allowed politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters chose their politicians. These are the very scenarios that must push us to question the ethics and integrity of our politics.
But the Court may have an opportunity to right one of its biggest wrongs. Should the Supreme Court shift leftward with the appointment of Merrick Garland, they could and should overturn Citizens United. And the timing couldn’t be better. They could do so ahead of an upcoming election that could cost upwards of 5 billion.