Thanks to a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling Thursday, we now know how much it costs to buy a democracy: $10 million.
That’s how much money right-wing donors spent to put four justices on the court, justices who just eviscerated Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws. Their ruling rests on a bizarre interpretation of First Amendment rights.
The justices declared that the unnamed persons targeted by the investigation were “innocent victims” of what Gov. Scott Walker called a “witch hunt,” even though it was a bipartisan probe conducted by seasoned prosecutors, which the court ruled had been properly appointed by a judge.
This is not a simple black-and-white story — there are several shades of gray, revealing serious shortcomings in our systems for investigating suspected wrongdoing and for the exercise of judicial power.
This is how democracies die: not with a bang, but through the quiet election of officials who put ideology ahead of principle, and invalidate rules designed to make sure our government is not for sale to the biggest donors.
The people who bought Wisconsin’s democracy – namely the libertarian Koch Brothers – can now use this decision to put unlimited money behind their favorite pols in Badger State contests.
This will also embolden the various Club for Growth organizations, which are basically cabals of anti-tax Republicans who tell Republicans to adopt their positions or else they will run someone against them. Think of these clubs as a nonviolent analog to Mafia extortion rackets: “Do what we say or we get rid of you” — in this case via ballot, rather than pine, box.
The ruling also increases the chances that the Republicans will nominate Walker for president. The GOP presidential field has been called a clown car. The Kochs, with their richly financed political operation, want to buy that car and put Walker in the driver’s seat.
If the Kochs and their allies succeed, it will show just how cheaply the government of, by, and for the people can become a relic in the plutocrats’ museum, our government replaced with the illusion of democracy. Buying Wisconsin’s 5.8 million-person democracy cost $10 million, which means the billion dollars the Kochs have committed to the 2016 presidential election is almost twice what they would need to buy out the entire country.
Democracy For Sale
In a sharply divided for 4-2 ruling, the Wisconsin high court shut down a criminal investigation into Walker’s campaign organization. The inquiry had dragged on for three years, and investigators had employed some heavy-handed tactics, such as predawn raids. But the court did not sanction such actions — and so it gutted the campaign finance law, and ordered all evidence of possible felonies to be returned or destroyed.
Predawn raids, which we should generally find offensive, are now commonly used for such matters as integrity investigations of government clerks as well as suspected criminals. So just by themselves, the raids are not evidence of anything extraordinary. If they were, the court would have added extra language, known as dicta, indicating it might kill any criminal investigation that used predawn raids without strong reason for doing so.
Before Thursday, Wisconsin had some of the country’s strictest rules regulating the disclosures of campaign donations and limiting the corrupting influence of money spent to bend government to personal or corporate interests.
Thanks to the recent ruling, supporters can spend unlimited sums to support a candidate as long as they do not directly urge a vote for the candidate or against the opponent. In theory, such “issue campaigns” are supposed to operate independently of the candidate. The prosecutors had been following leads that suggested this nominal independence was a sham.
If you know anyone who thinks most voters distinguish between so-called “issue ads” and outright declarations that you should vote for or against a candidate, I have some advice. Please, without delay, seek a guardianship before email grifters take their life savings.
And if you think “independent” committees are vital to First Amendment rights, well, sorry but the Founders and Framers wrote against money in politics. President John Adams worried that a business aristocracy would arise in America. If a large number of people owned neither land nor the tools they worked with, Adams reckoned, they could be deceived into voting for policies that further entrenched those with lots of money.
That seems an apt description of today’s America, in which right-wing Republicans’ clear message is that our social and economic ills can all be traced to the same problem: The rich don’t have enough.
The Kochs and others are not so stupid that they would put it in those exact words, but listen carefully to their message and it becomes obvious. The Kochs have argued that lower wages are good.
In his dissent, Justice Patrick Crooks said the Wisconsin’s court ruling “will profoundly affect the integrity of our electoral process.” No kidding.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s dissent called the decision “an unprecedented and faulty interpretation of both First Amendment rights and Wisconsin’s campaign finance law.”
Earlier she had complained that the documents in the case, which had been filed under seal with the names of the plaintiffs kept secret, had been excessively redacted.
In April, using new powers approved by voters, the four right-wing justices, together with longtime conservative member Patience Roggensack, removed Abrahamson as chief justice. Roggensack cast the deciding vote promoting herself to chief justice.
So we have a decision reached without argument in open court, using secret documents to protect the identities (already revealed in news reports) of people who claimed that they were just exercising their First Amendment rights in spending money to influence voters.
The Wisconsin ruling shows how the reasoning behind the U. S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision can easily be expanded to remove the (imaginary) wall that separates advocacy groups exercising their First Amendment rights from the candidate they support.
Once conservatives changed the law to equate political donations with free speech, it was just a matter of time before those with lots of money bought out democracy.
Back when the first Western democracy was born, in Athens almost 2,500 years ago, the problem of money in politics was a major concern. The oligarchs had always called the shots — so how to make “one man, one vote” an actual practice, not just for show?
One solution was to pick officials by lot, on the theory that all men were equal — a rule applied to all posts except the trained professionals known as strategoi (admirals and generals who set military strategy).
An accompanying rule imposed strict accountability. Get picked by lot to be chancellor of the treasury and you have to replace any money that goes missing (and you just might get executed anyway). Those unfit for office found it smart to pay someone out of their government salary, someone trustworthy, lest they be mortally punished.
We don’t need to trust the gods of chance to pick leaders. We do need to make sure the gods of money do not blind us to thousands of years of human experience, which teach that money corrupts politics and politicians, and destroys both economies and the liberties of the people.
If we do not become active and insist on level playing fields in politics, then court decisions like the recent Wisconsin ruling will continue to conceal from us the people who are backing politicians and imposing policies that are bad for us — and such decisions will, as John Adams warned, be used to bind us to the desires of the business aristocrats.
Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr