WASHINGTON — An oligarchy, Webster’s dictionary tells us, is “a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons.” It’s a shame that the Republican majority on the Supreme Court doesn’t know the difference between an oligarchy and a democratic republic.
Yes, I said “the Republican majority,” violating a nicety based on the pretense that when people reach the high court, they forget their party allegiance. We need to stop peddling this fiction.
On cases involving the right of Americans to vote and the ability of a very small number of very rich people to exercise unlimited influence on the political process, Chief Justice John Roberts and his four allies always side with the wealthy, the powerful and the forces that would advance the political party that put them on the Court. The ideological overreach that is wrecking our politics is now also wrecking our jurisprudence.
The Court’s latest ruling in McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission should not be seen in isolation. (The “et al.,” by the way, refers to the Republican National Committee.) It is yet another act of judicial usurpation by five justices who treat the elected branches of our government with contempt, and precedent as meaningless. If Congress tries to contain the power of the rich, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face. And if Congress tries to guarantee the voting rights of minorities, the Roberts Court will slap it in the face again.
Notice how these actions work in tandem to make the wealthy more powerful and those who have suffered oppression and discrimination less powerful. You don’t need much imagination to see who benefits from what the Court is doing.
Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling obliterates long-standing rules that limit the aggregate amounts of money the super-rich can contribute to various political candidates and committees in any one election cycle. In 2012, individuals could give no more than a total of $70,800 to all political committees and no more than $46,200 to all candidates.
The rule is based on a political reality Roberts sweeps aside with faux naivete: Access and power come not just from relationships with individual members of Congress but from strong links to party leaders and party structures. Someone who helps a party keep its majority by contributing to 200 or 300 candidates and Lord knows how many political committees will have a lot more power than you will if you make a $25 contribution in a congressional race.
Roberts writes as if he is defending the First Amendment rights of all of us. But how many people are really empowered by this decision? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 1,715 donors gave the maximum amount to party committees in 2012, and 591 gave the maximum amount to federal candidates. The current estimate of the population of the United States stands at over 317 million.
Those using the word “oligarchy” to describe the political regime the Supreme Court is creating are not doing so lightly. Combine McCutcheon with the decision in the Citizens United case and you can see that the Court is systematically transferring more power to a tiny, privileged sliver of our people.
I keep emphasizing the word “power” because the Roberts decision pretends that the concept is as distant from this issue as Pluto is from Earth. The philosopher Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, made the essential distinction: “Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly: none of these require money payments; none of them are available at auction; they are simply guaranteed to every citizen. … Quick access to large audiences is expensive, but that is another matter, not of freedom itself but of influence and power.”
In his McCutcheon opinion, Roberts piously declares: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” This lovely commitment escaped him entirely last summer when he and his allies threw out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Suddenly, efforts to protect the right of minorities “to participate in electing our political leaders” took second place behind all manner of worries about how Congress had constructed the law. The decision unleashed a frenzy in Republican-controlled states to pass laws that make it harder for African-Americans, Latinos and poor people to vote.
Thus has this Court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot.
Send in the oligarchs.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
For a large and bipartisan majority of Americans, the increasing power of money in politics is alarming, but not for the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court, whose members appear to regard the dollar’s domination of democracy as an inevitable consequence of constitutional freedom — and anyway, not a matter of grave concern. Expressed in their decisions on campaign finance, which continued last week to dismantle decades of reform in the McCutcheon case, the Court’s right wing sees little risk of corruption and little need to regulate the flamboyant spending of billionaires.
Given the behavior of certain conservative justices, such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – who flout the rules that govern partisan behavior among lower-court judges – it is easy to regard their rulings as partisan cynicism. But there is also an element of willful naiveté when the conservatives claim, for instance, that corrupt donations will be exposed by the instant transparency of publication on the Internet. Any reporter who has covered elections can attest that there are dozens of ways for wealthy donors to avoid public scrutiny until it is much too late to matter.
But if right-wingers like Scalia and Thomas are simply pursuing ideological objectives, what about Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee from California who was long seen as a moderating influence and a “swing vote”? On the issue of campaign finance, Kennedy has marched along with the majority, seeming just as fervent in his urge to destroy every regulation and protection against the “malefactors of great wealth” erected since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.
It was Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion in Citizens United, which dismissed the notion that corruption will arise from unlimited political campaign contributions because they will all be disclosed. “Citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests …and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” he wrote. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
But if any Supreme Court justice knows how ridiculous that sounds, it must be Kennedy – whose own background as a corporate lobbyist and son of a lobbyist has been forgotten in nearly three decades since his Senate confirmation in 1987.
Yes, Kennedy was a respected appellate court judge before Reagan appointed him to the high court. But before that, he grew up and then worked as an attorney in Sacramento, where his father became a “legendary” lobbyist in a state capital renowned as “freewheeling” (a polite term that means “routinely corrupt”).
His father, Anthony “Bud” Kennedy, was a backslapping, hard-drinking partner in a powerful lobbying law firm run by one Arthur “Artie” Samish, “the “secret boss of California” who finally went to prison on tax charges in the mid-1950s, while young Tony was studying to enter law school. Samish liked to brag that he had amassed more power than anyone else in the state, including the governor, that he could buy any legislator with “a baked potato, a bottle, or a broad,” and that he was able to “unelect” any lawmaker who didn’t vote his way.
The major clients of Samish and Kennedy were racing, entertainment, and liquor interests, notably including Schenley Industries, then run by J. Edgar Hoover’s mobbed-up pal Lewis Rosenstiel. When Bud Kennedy died suddenly in 1963, young Tony was only two years out of law school. But he went into the family business and inherited his late father’s clientele.
While Kennedy always insisted that lobbying was only a “sideline” in his law practice, his billings were substantial – the equivalent of hundreds of thousands or more in today’s dollars. In 1974, he pushed through a bill for Capitol Records that saved the company (and cost the state) millions in sales taxes.
How did he do it? The same way that special interests work their will today – by doling out huge wads of cash to lawmakers on behalf of his clients. The single largest recipient of Kennedy lobbying largesse, according to the Los Angeles Times, was a legislator who introduced a bill to benefit the opticians’ lobby that Kennedy himself had drafted (it passed). He gave that guy alone about $6,500 in campaign contributions over six years, or roughly $40,000 in today’s dollars.
So if anybody on the Court knows how the political and legislative process is greased in this country, that would be Anthony Kennedy. After all, he was reared in the game. And it shouldn’t deceive anyone when he sounds as if he doesn’t understand how things work or who wins in that perverse process – and how everyone else loses.
Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons
With wealth concentrating in the hands of the few, and the Supreme Court handing even greater political power to those with big money, what can be done to protect democracy?
The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, making it even easier for the rich to buy political power, highlights the big question raised by Thomas Piketty’s new instant economic classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What chance is there for our democracy to stop the relentless accumulation of wealth by the richest few?
The core lesson of Piketty’s book, based on extensive analysis of data, is that, as Eduard Porter summarized in the The New York Times, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.” Piketty says that as the return to capital exceeds economic growth, an ever larger share of national income goes to the owners of capital, the managers of capital and to their heirs.
Economics can’t reverse this, Piketty warns. Only “political action can make this go in the other direction,” he told Porter. The political action he recommends is global taxation of wealth and highly progressive income taxes. As James Galbraith points out in a review of Piketty’s book in Dissent, labor policies like raising the minimum wage and empowering labor unions would also work to share increases in national income more fairly and reduce income inequality, as would robust inheritance taxes.
Policy solutions are easy to come up with. The enormous challenge is that the more wealth is concentrated, the harder it becomes to enact those policies.
That’s not how it is supposed to work in a democracy. In theory, if the great majority of people are doing worse, while a few are doing much better, the majority should be able to change the policy at the voting booth. As just about anyone in America will tell you – from the Tea Partiers who decry crony capitalism to the Occupiers who rail against the 1 percent (I’m with them) – that’s not happening.
In the last few years, several academic studies by Larry Bartels and others have documented that what the rich believe prevails in politics and what the rest of us think has relatively little impact. The most recent study, released last month, was summarized in Forbes this way:
…[T]hose who have assets worth $40 million or more hold undue sway over the positions politicians take on issues ranging from health care to global warming to defense spending. The wealthiest Americans, contends the paper, are more conservative than the public as a whole on many issues, and U.S. public policy reflects that.
That academics are finding what everyone outside of the five-member conservative majority in the Supreme Court believes – money buys influence, not just access – is gratifying, but hardly surprising. Of course, the political clout of the wealthy is based on more than just campaign cash. It’s control of major media and of much of academia. It’s control of people’s lives, so that corporations can threaten to cut jobs due to pro-labor policies and those threats are too scary for many people to risk challenging. It’s the prevalence and convergence of the conservative narrative, creating the “false consciousness” that leads so many people to vote against their own economic self-interest.
If we look to American history for guidance on whether democracy can rally, the lessons are not clear. For the first three centuries of European settlement of the United States, the opportunities offered by the expanding frontier relieved the pressure for economic justice. But as the frontier closed, the political pressure for policies to rein in corporate concentration and provide basic labor rights intensified. The result was the landmark legislation enacted in the Progressive era, from income and inheritance taxes to child labor laws to trust-busting. But that didn’t stop the huge rise in income inequality that led up to the stock market crash of 1929.
The New Deal provides more positive evidence that if it gets bad enough for enough people, the political system will respond dramatically: regulating finance, establishing labor standards and the right to organize, providing for social insurance, government job creation. Still, it took a world war for the political system to make the all-out investment in jobs and conditions for growth that built the great post-World War II middle-class.
So where does that leave us in 2014, after 40 years of slowly stagnating wages and gradual but relentless shrinking of middle-class reality and hopes? My first boss, Ralph Nader, wrote that “pessimism has no survival value” and 39 years after he hired me I continue to follow that advice. I can see many positive signs that we can successfully organize the political will for progressive policies to create an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.
Most encouraging are new movements, by low-wage workers and by people demanding we stop killing the planet. I’m encouraged by the Millennial generation’s belief in community and embracing of diversity. And by the rising American electorate of women and communities of color who share with Millennials a belief in collective action to care for our loved ones and our communities. I’m lifted by the election of a growing number of economic progressives to local and state leadership and most recently to Congress. All of these groups share a deep concern about the state of our democracy, reminding us as well that with a switch of just one vote, the Supreme Court can reverse the disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as well as the damage done by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Can the powerful forces Piketty describes by turned back by a resurgent democracy? Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” The stakes in the 21st century are still that great. Don’t mourn: organize.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.
Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
AFP Photo/Karen Bleier
About The National Memo
The National Memo is a political newsletter and website that combines the spirit of investigative journalism with new technology and ideas. We cover campaigns, elections, the White House, Congress, and the world with a fresh outlook. Our own journalism — as well as our selections of the smartest stories available every day — reflects a clear and strong perspective, without the kind of propaganda, ultra-partisanship and overwrought ideology that burden so much of our political discourse.