The role of wealth in elections

by The City Wire staff ( 19 views 

Two recent Supreme Court decisions have troubled a number of Americans who care about rule by the people. But before we discuss these cases, a brief history is in order.

From the earliest days of the republic, wealth and politics have gone together. In 1787 during the constitutional convention, there was considerable debate over who should be able to vote for representatives in the House. There were many at the convention who held that only those with property should be given the franchise. This belief came about out of suspicions of the masses without property. Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris claimed that giving those without property the right to vote would lead them to sell those votes to the rich.

James Madison, delegate from Virginia and sometimes called the father of the Constitution, made a similar claim. Madison, defending the new Constitution, claimed that a free society is undermined by faction, and “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.”

Marx was not the first to speak of class warfare; one of our own founding fathers came before him.

The new Constitution, with its checks and balances, was meant to minimize the power of the masses in favor of an elite ruling class. Only the House of Representatives had direct elections by the people; the Senate was to be chosen by the respective state assemblies, and the president was to be selected by the Electoral College. But even with the House, there were restrictions based on wealth – let alone race and gender. Only those white men with sufficient land and/or money were allowed to vote. It was only well into the 1800s that these restrictions were lifted by the states who determine voter eligibility.

Today, we are seeing a return to the days of rule by the few. The gap in incomes of the 1% and the rest of us are increasing. We are returning to rule by the few, a return to oligarchy.

A study by Princeton researchers show that the wealthy have a greater impact on politics than their numbers, while the rest of us, the 99%, would justly warrant. The top 1% of the top 1% donates roughly 28% of the total amount of campaign money in any given election cycle.

The extreme wealthy are not ashamed of this. Tom Perkins, a billionaire venture capitalist, jokingly suggests that voting should be based similar to a corporation, where the biggest shareholders get the biggest say; $1 million buys you one million votes. He even suggests (again, jokingly) that the wealthy are being persecuted in a similar fashion as the Jews in Nazi Germany.

We know that money plays an inordinate influence in our political system. It always has.  The first attempt to rein in this influence was in 1971 with the creation of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to monitor and regulate campaign in contributions. In 2002 a following up act was passed. The McCain-Feingold bill, a bi-partisan bill designed to limit campaign contributions to political candidates, intended to not to eliminate money from elections but to regulate who gave the money and how much.

However in recent years the Supreme Court has weakened these restrictions. Citizens United, decided in 2010, held that corporations had the same First Amendment rights as individuals, thus effectively giving corporations the ability to donate as much money to political activities as they wish (having earlier decided that donating money was a type of free speech; corporations are people, too). A follow up case decided this year, McCutcheon v. FEC, ruled that there were no limits for individuals giving to political campaigns.

As citizens we should be concerned about this. As Lincoln said in a very famous speech, this nation should have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, and not a privileged few. If it is the latter, then as a republic,  we will disappear from the earth.