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In The Wake Of McCutcheon, Can Democracy Tame Capital?

Memo Pad Politics

In The Wake Of McCutcheon, Can Democracy Tame Capital?


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



  1. sigrid28 April 4, 2014

    Thanks for a terrific article–in all senses of the word: TERRIFIC. Kirsch’s one-word solution, “organize,” should be the clarion call for all progressives with respect to the 2014 election. We must retain a majority in the Senate, so that President Obama’s nomination for a new Supreme Court judge–if he has the opportunity to select one–can be confirmed. The Obama administration has to keep judicial nominations coming down the pipeline to the federal courts, and our legal teams must keep challenging unjust laws in the meantime. I think there is more than enough to do. We need Democratic wins for the White House in both 2016 and 2020 if there is to be any hope in reversing the damage caused by this activist Supreme Court.

  2. dtgraham April 4, 2014

    By itself alone, McCutcheon doesn’t add too much more to the corrupting influence of money on politicians but that’s not the main problem with it. It was built on previous precedents and will in turn almost certainly become a pathway to worse decisions yet to come.

    Citizens United was eventually born out of the 1976 creation of independent expenditures that loosened and modified the campaign finance laws legislated right after the watergate era. SpeechNOW v federal election commission used ‘Citizens’ legal logic to turn Pacs into unlimited Superpacs. With John Roberts and his remarkably narrow and restricted definition of political bribery and quid pro quo, and the presence on the court of self declared Clarence “free for all” Thomas, the individual donation limit of $5200.00 per candidate will surely go and it won’t be long. I don’t see how it lasts.

    Alex Sink and Greg Jolly recently spent well over 3 million dollars between the two of them on their Congressional race in Florida. I’m not convinced that a handful of additional $5200.00 donations would have dramatically worsened the situation, especially given the nature of non-disclosure, unlimited Superpac money.

    You always know who is behind the Superpac and which candidate(s) that this money will be supporting. The only difference of eventually lifting the non-Pac per candidate donation limit is that it would allow you to give directly to that candidate, but marketing and positive/negative ads are the name of the game anyway even if they’re “non-coordinated”—let’s face it. While it seems to me that Superpacs are an effective enough conduit to a candidate, the final removal of McCutcheon’s finance law remnants would be still another blow to democracy for sure.


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