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“Trump’s $580,600 Per Couple Fundraiser Tomorrow is the Direct Result of the Supreme Court’s Decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that was “Divorced from Reality”
By Fred Wertheimer | February 14, 2020 | Medium
President Trump is holding a fundraiser tomorrow in Palm Beach, FL, at which contributions of $580,600 per couple are being raised for Trump’s re-election bid.
The ability of Trump to raise these astronomical amounts of influence money from billionaires and multimillionaires is a direct result of the Supreme Court’s utter failure to understand the nation’s campaign finance laws or the implications of its decision.
In McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the Supreme Court in a misguided 5 to 4 decision struck down the aggregate limit on the total amount of money an individual could give to all political party committees in a two-year election cycle. The aggregate limit was enacted in the 1974 Watergate reforms, was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo and had been in effect for forty years. (The Court also struck down the aggregate limit on total contributions by an individual to candidates.)
An amicus brief filed in the McCutcheon case by Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the law firm WilmerHale (on behalf of then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. David Price) warned the Court about what would happen if they struck down the aggregate limit on contributions to parties. We stated in our brief:
Absent aggregate contribution limits, candidates and officeholders would be permitted to solicit massive donations to their parties and fellow candidates, explicitly and directly from their donors. […]
[C]andidates and parties often create joint fundraising committees to receive combined contributions from a single donor to be allocated, up to the applicable per-contribution limit for the relevant election cycles, to as many national, state, and local party committees and candidates as possible. Without aggregate limits, such practices would easily allow candidates and officeholders to solicit and receive contributions that substantially exceed $1 million.
The U.S. Solicitor General made the same arguments in defense of the aggregate limits.
In the majority opinion, however, Chief Justice Roberts snidely wrote about the examples given that “these scenarios, along with others that have been suggested, are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.”
I would submit that if the Chief Justice read The Washington Post this morning about the Trump fundraiser, he would understand that it is he who was “divorced from reality,” not the defenders of the aggregate limits. And the Chief Justice would also understand that the fundraising that he thought would be illegal is being legally carried out tomorrow by Trump.
Justice Alito also snidely wrote in a concurring opinion that the examples given were “wild hypotheticals that are not obviously plausible.”
I would submit that if Justice Alito read The Washington Post this morning, he would understand that the examples given were not “wild hypotheticals,” but examples of political reality that will play out tomorrow at the Trump fundraiser.
The Roberts Supreme Court has been destroying the nation’s campaign finance laws without a clue about the impact of its decisions or the enormous damage it is doing to our political system. This holds true not just for the McCutcheon decision, but for the Citizens United decision as well.
The Supreme Court has decided that the Court, not Congress, should write the nation’s campaign finance laws. In remaking the nation’s campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court has done grave harm to the American people and to the goal of preventing political money corruption in Washington.
“The Last Time Democracy Almost Died”
Learning from the upheaval of the nineteen-thirties.
From The Future of Democracy , a special series of The New Yorker Magazine, February 3, 2020 Issue
The last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once, Americans argued about it, and then they tried to fix it. “The future of democracy is topic number one in the animated discussion going on all over America,” a contributor to the New York Times wrote in 1937. “In the Legislatures, over the radio, at the luncheon table, in the drawing rooms, at meetings of forums and in all kinds of groups of citizens everywhere, people are talking about the democratic way of life.” People bickered and people hollered, and they also made rules. “You are a liar!” one guy shouted from the audience during a political debate heard on the radio by ten million Americans, from Missoula to Tallahassee. “Now, now, we don’t allow that,” the moderator said, calmly, and asked him to leave.
In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson’s Administration had promised that winning the Great War would “make the world safe for democracy.” The peace carved nearly a dozen new states out of the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires. The number of democracies in the world rose; the spread of liberal-democratic governance began to appear inevitable. But this was no more than a reverie. Infant democracies grew, toddled, wobbled, and fell: Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, Yugoslavia. In older states, too, the desperate masses turned to authoritarianism. Benito Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922. It had taken a century and a half for European monarchs who ruled by divine right and brute force to be replaced by constitutional democracies and the rule of law. Now Fascism and Communism toppled these governments in a matter of months, even before the stock-market crash of 1929 and the misery that ensued.
“Epitaphs for democracy are the fashion of the day,” the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, dismally, in 1930. The annus horribilisthat followed differed from every other year in the history of the world, according to the British historian Arnold Toynbee: “In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” When Japan invaded Manchuria, the League of Nations condemned the annexation, to no avail. “The liberal state is destined to perish,” Mussolini predicted in 1932. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.” By 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, the American political commentator Walter Lippmann was telling an audience of students at Berkeley that “the old relationships among the great masses of the people of the earth have disappeared.” What next? More epitaphs: Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia. Authoritarians multiplied in Portugal, Uruguay, Spain. Japan invaded Shanghai. Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. “The present century is the century of authority,” he declared, “a century of the Right, a Fascist century.”
American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government. “What Does Democracy Mean?” NBC radio asked listeners. “Do we Negroes believe in democracy?” W. E. B. Du Bois asked the readers of his newspaper column. Could it happen here? Sinclair Lewis asked in 1935. Americans suffered, and hungered, and wondered. The historian Charles Beard, in the inevitable essay on “The Future of Democracy in the United States,” predicted that American democracy would endure, if only because “there is in America, no Rome, no Berlin to march on.” Some Americans turned to Communism. Some turned to Fascism. And a lot of people, worried about whether American democracy could survive past the end of the decade, strove to save it.
“It’s not too late,” Jimmy Stewart pleaded with Congress, rasping, exhausted, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in 1939. “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.” It wasn’t too late. It’s still not too late.
There’s a kind of likeness you see in family photographs, generation after generation. The same ears, the same funny nose. Sometimes now looks a lot like then. Still, it can be hard to tell whether the likeness is more than skin deep.
In the nineteen-nineties, with the end of the Cold War, democracies grew more plentiful, much as they had after the end of the First World War. As ever, the infant-mortality rate for democracies was high: baby democracies tend to die in their cradles. Starting in about 2005, the number of democracies around the world began to fall, as it had in the nineteen-thirties. Authoritarians rose to power: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald J. Trump in the United States.
“American democracy,” as a matter of history, is democracy with an asterisk, the symbol A-Rod’s name would need if he were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act can the United States be said to have met the basic conditions for political equality requisite in a democracy. All the same, measured not against its past but against its contemporaries, American democracy in the twenty-first century is withering. The Democracy Index rates a hundred and sixty-seven countries, every year, on a scale that ranges from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime.” In 2006, the U.S. was a “full democracy,” the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world. In 2016, the index for the first time rated the United States a “flawed democracy,” and since then American democracy has gotten only more flawed. True, the United States still doesn’t have a Rome or a Berlin to march on. That hasn’t saved the nation from misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.
Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition. Mussolini called Italy and Germany “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today,” and Hitler liked to say that, with Nazi Germany, he had achieved a “beautiful democracy,” prompting the American political columnist Dorothy Thompson to remark of the Fascist state, “If it is going to call itself democratic we had better find another word for what we have and what we want.” In the nineteen-thirties, Americans didn’t find another word. But they did work to decide what they wanted, and to imagine and to build it. Thompson, who had been a foreign correspondent in Germany and Austria and had interviewed the Führer, said, in a column that reached eight million readers, “Be sure you know what you prepare to defend.”
It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. American democracy in the nineteen-thirties had plenty of critics, left and right, from Mexican-Americans who objected to a brutal regime of forced deportations to businessmen who believed the New Deal to be unconstitutional. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that, unless the United States met its obligations to the dignity and equality of all its citizens and ended its enthrallment to corporations, American democracy would fail: “If it is going to use this power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace; then America will go the way of the Roman Empire.”
The historian Mary Ritter Beard warned that American democracy would make no headway against its “ruthless enemies—war, fascism, ignorance, poverty, scarcity, unemployment, sadistic criminality, racial persecution, man’s lust for power and woman’s miserable trailing in the shadow of his frightful ways”—unless Americans could imagine a future democracy in which women would no longer be barred from positions of leadership: “If we will not so envisage our future, no Bill of Rights, man’s or woman’s, is worth the paper on which it is printed.”
If the United States hasn’t gone the way of the Roman Empire and the Bill of Rights is still worth more than the paper on which it’s printed, that’s because so many people have been, ever since, fighting the fights Du Bois and Ritter Beard fought. There have been wins and losses. The fight goes on.
Could no system of rule but extremism hold back the chaos of economic decline? In the nineteen-thirties, people all over the world, liberals, hoped that the United States would be able to find a middle road, somewhere between the malignity of a state-run economy and the mercilessness of laissez-faire capitalism. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on the promise to rescue American democracy by way of a “new deal for the American people,” his version of that third way: relief, recovery, and reform. He won forty-two of forty-eight states, and trounced the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, in the Electoral College 472 to 59. Given the national emergency in which Roosevelt took office, Congress granted him an almost entirely free hand, even as critics raised concerns that the powers he assumed were barely short of dictatorial.
New Dealers were trying to save the economy; they ended up saving democracy. They built a new America; they told a new American story. On New Deal projects, people from different parts of the country labored side by side, constructing roads and bridges and dams, everything from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Hoover Dam, joining together in a common endeavor, shoulder to the wheel, hand to the forge. Many of those public-works projects, like better transportation and better electrification, also brought far-flung communities, down to the littlest town or the remotest farm, into a national culture, one enriched with new funds for the arts, theatre, music, and storytelling. With radio, more than with any other technology of communication, before or since, Americans gained a sense of their shared suffering, and shared ideals: they listened to one another’s voices.
This didn’t happen by accident. Writers and actors and directors and broadcasters made it happen. They dedicated themselves to using the medium to bring people together. Beginning in 1938, for instance, F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration produced a twenty-six-week radio-drama series for CBS called “Americans All, Immigrants All,” written by Gilbert Seldes, the former editor of The Dial. “What brought people to this country from the four corners of the earth?” a pamphlet distributed to schoolteachers explaining the series asked. “What gifts did they bear? What were their problems? What problems remain unsolved?” The finale celebrated the American experiment: “The story of magnificent adventure! The record of an unparalleled event in the history of mankind!”
There is no twenty-first-century equivalent of Seldes’s “Americans All, Immigrants All,” because it is no longer acceptable for a serious artist to write in this vein, and for this audience, and for this purpose. (In some quarters, it was barely acceptable even then.) Love of the ordinary, affection for the common people, concern for the commonweal: these were features of the best writing and art of the nineteen-thirties. They are not so often features lately.
Americans reëlected F.D.R. in 1936 by one of the widest margins in the country’s history. American magazines continued the trend from the twenties, in which hardly a month went by without their taking stock: “Is Democracy Doomed?” “Can Democracy Survive?” (Those were the past century’s versions of more recent titles, such as “How Democracy Ends,” “Why Liberalism Failed,” “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” and “How Democracies Die.” The same ears, that same funny nose.) In 1934, the Christian Science Monitor published a debate called “Whither Democracy?,” addressed “to everyone who has been thinking about the future of democracy—and who hasn’t.” It staked, as adversaries, two British scholars: Alfred Zimmern, a historian from Oxford, on the right, and Harold Laski, a political theorist from the London School of Economics, on the left. “Dr. Zimmern says in effect that where democracy has failed it has not been really tried,” the editors explained. “Professor Laski sees an irrepressible conflict between the idea of political equality in democracy and the fact of economic inequality in capitalism, and expects at least a temporary resort to Fascism or a capitalistic dictatorship.” On the one hand, American democracy is safe; on the other hand, American democracy is not safe.
Zimmern and Laski went on speaking tours of the United States, part of a long parade of visiting professors brought here to prognosticate on the future of democracy. Laski spoke to a crowd three thousand strong, in Washington’s Constitution Hall. “laski tells how to save democracy,” the Washington Post reported. Zimmern delivered a series of lectures titled “The Future of Democracy,” at the University of Buffalo, in which he warned that democracy had been undermined by a new aristocracy of self-professed experts. “I am no more ready to be governed by experts than I am to be governed by the ex-Kaiser,” he professed, expertly.
The year 1935 happened to mark the centennial of the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an occasion that elicited still more lectures from European intellectuals coming to the United States to remark on its system of government and the character of its people, close on Tocqueville’s heels. Heinrich Brüning, a scholar and a former Chancellor of Germany, lectured at Princeton on “The Crisis of Democracy”; the Swiss political theorist William Rappard gave the same title to a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago. In “The Prospects for Democracy,” the Scottish historian and later BBC radio quiz-show panelist Denis W. Brogan offered little but gloom: “The defenders of democracy, the thinkers and writers who still believe in its merits, are in danger of suffering the fate of Aristotle, who kept his eyes fixedly on the city-state at a time when that form of government was being reduced to a shadow by the rise of Alexander’s world empire.” Brogan hedged his bets by predicting the worst. It’s an old trick.
The endless train of academics were also called upon to contribute to the nation’s growing number of periodicals. In 1937, The New Republic, arguing that “at no time since the rise of political democracy have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today,” ran a series on “The Future of Democracy,” featuring pieces by the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. “Do you think that political democracy is now on the wane?” the editors asked each writer. The series’ lead contributor, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, took issue with the question, as philosophers, thankfully, do. “I call this kind of question ‘meteorological,’ ” he grumbled. “It is like asking, ‘Do you think that it is going to rain today? Had I better take my umbrella?’ ” The trouble, Croce explained, is that political problems are not external forces beyond our control; they are forces within our control. “We need solely to make up our own minds and to act.”
Don’t ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain.
Here are some of the sorts of people who went out and stopped the rain in the nineteen-thirties: schoolteachers, city councillors, librarians, poets, union organizers, artists, precinct workers, soldiers, civil-rights activists, and investigative reporters. They knew what they were prepared to defend and they defended it, even though they also knew that they risked attack from both the left and the right. Charles Beard (Mary Ritter’s husband) spoke out against the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, when he smeared scholars and teachers as Communists. “The people who are doing the most damage to American democracy are men like Charles A. Beard,” said a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, speaking at a high school on the subject of “Democracy and the Future,” and warning against reading Beard’s books—at a time when Nazis in Germany and Austria were burning “un-German” books in public squares. That did not exactly happen here, but in the nineteen-thirties four of five American superintendents of schools recommended assigning only those U.S. history textbooks which “omit any facts likely to arouse in the minds of the students question or doubt concerning the justice of our social order and government.” Beard’s books, God bless them, raised doubts.
Beard didn’t back down. Nor did W.P.A. muralists and artists, who were subject to the same attack. Instead, Beard took pains to point out that Americans liked to think of themselves as good talkers and good arguers, people with a particular kind of smarts. Not necessarily book learning, but street smarts—reasonableness, open-mindedness, level-headedness. “The kind of universal intellectual prostration required by Bolshevism and Fascism is decidedly foreign to American ‘intelligence,’ ” Beard wrote. Possibly, he allowed, you could call this a stubborn independence of mind, or even mulishness. “Whatever the interpretation, our wisdom or ignorance stands in the way of our accepting the totalitarian assumption of Omniscience,” he insisted. “And to this extent it contributes to the continuance of the arguing, debating, never-settling-anything-finally methods of political democracy.” Maybe that was whistling in the dark, but sometimes a whistle is all you’ve got.
The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him. Denny, who helped run something called the League for Political Education, thought that was nuts. In 1935, he launched “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” an hour-long debate program, broadcast nationally on NBC’s Blue Network. Each episode opened with a town crier ringing a bell and hollering, “Town meeting tonight! Town meeting tonight!” Then Denny moderated a debate, usually among three or four panelists, on a controversial subject (Does the U.S. have a truly free press? Should schools teach politics?), before opening the discussion up to questions from an audience of more than a thousand people. The debates were conducted at a lecture hall, usually in New York, and broadcast to listeners gathered in public libraries all over the country, so that they could hold their own debates once the show ended. “We are living today on the thin edge of history,” Max Lerner, the editor of The Nation, said in 1938, during a “Town Meeting of the Air” debate on the meaning of democracy. His panel included a Communist, an exile from the Spanish Civil War, a conservative American political economist, and a Russian columnist. “We didn’t expect to settle anything, and therefore we succeeded,” the Spanish exile said at the end of the hour, offering this definition: “A democracy is a place where a ‘Town Meeting of the Air’ can take place.”
No one expected anyone to come up with an undisputable definition of democracy, since the point was disputation. Asking people about the meaning and the future of democracy and listening to them argue it out was really only a way to get people to stretch their civic muscles. “Democracy can only be saved by democratic men and women,” Dorothy Thompson once said. “The war against democracy begins by the destruction of the democratic temper, the democratic method and the democratic heart. If the democratic temper be exacerbated into wanton unreasonableness, which is the essence of the evil, then a victory has been won for the evil we despise and prepare to defend ourselves against, even though it’s 3,000 miles away and has never moved.”
The most ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties came out of Des Moines, Iowa, from a one-eyed former bricklayer named John W. Studebaker, who had become the superintendent of the city’s schools. Studebaker, who after the Second World War helped create the G.I. Bill, had the idea of opening those schools up at night, so that citizens could hold debates. In 1933, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and support from the American Association for Adult Education, he started a five-year experiment in civic education.
The meetings began at a quarter to eight, with a fifteen-minute news update, followed by a forty-five-minute lecture, and thirty minutes of debate. The idea was that “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.” When Senator Guy Gillette, a Democrat from Iowa, talked about “Why I Support the New Deal,” Senator Lester Dickinson, a Republican from Iowa, talked about “Why I Oppose the New Deal.” Speakers defended Fascism. They attacked capitalism. They attacked Fascism. They defended capitalism. Within the first nine months of the program, thirteen thousand of Des Moines’s seventy-six thousand adults had attended a forum. The program got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding. The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.
The federal government paid for it, but everything else fell under local control, and ordinary people made it work, by showing up and participating. Usually, school districts found the speakers and decided on the topics after collecting ballots from the community. In some parts of the country, even in rural areas, meetings were held four and five times a week. They started in schools and spread to Y.M.C.A.s and Y.W.C.A.s, labor halls, libraries, settlement houses, and businesses, during lunch hours. Many of the meetings were broadcast by radio. People who went to those meetings debated all sorts of things:
These efforts don’t always work. Still, trying them is better than talking about the weather, and waiting for someone to hand you an umbrella.
When a terrible hurricane hit New England in 1938, Dr. Lorine Pruette, a Tennessee-born psychologist who had written an essay called “Why Women Fail,” and who had urged F.D.R. to name only women to his Cabinet, found herself marooned at a farm in New Hampshire with a young neighbor, sixteen-year-old Alice Hooper, a high-school sophomore. Waiting out the storm, they had nothing to do except listen to the news, which, needless to say, concerned the future of democracy. Alice asked Pruette a question: “What is it everyone on the radio is talking about—what is this democracy—what does it mean?” Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer. Democracy, Alice, is the darnedest thing.
That broadcast was made possible by the workers who brought electricity to rural New Hampshire; the legislators who signed the 1934 federal Communications Act, mandating public-interest broadcasting; the executives at NBC who decided that it was important to run this program; the two ministers, the three professors, the former ambassador, the poet, and the journalist who gave their time, for free, to a public forum, and agreed to disagree without acting like asses; and a whole lot of Americans who took the time to listen, carefully, even though they had plenty of other things to do. Getting out of our current jam will likely require something different, but not entirely different. And it will be worth doing.
A decade-long debate about the future of democracy came to a close at the end of the nineteen-thirties—but not because it had been settled. In 1939, the World’s Fair opened in Queens, with a main exhibit featuring the saga of democracy and a chipper motto: “The World of Tomorrow.” The fairgrounds included a Court of Peace, with pavilions for every nation. By the time the fair opened, Czechoslovakia had fallen to Germany, though, and its pavilion couldn’t open. Shortly afterward, Edvard Beneš, the exiled President of Czechoslovakia, delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago on, yes, the future of democracy, though he spoke less about the future than about the past, and especially about the terrible present, a time of violently unmoored traditions and laws and agreements, a time “of moral and intellectual crisis and chaos.” Soon, more funereal bunting was brought to the World’s Fair, to cover Poland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. By the time the World of Tomorrow closed, in 1940, half the European hall lay under a shroud of black.
The federal government stopped funding the forum program in 1941. Americans would take up their debate about the future of democracy, in a different form, only after the defeat of the Axis. For now, there was a war to fight. And there were still essays to publish, if not about the future, then about the present. In 1943, E. B. White got a letter in the mail, from the Writers’ War Board, asking him to write a statement about “The Meaning of Democracy.” He was a little weary of these pieces, but he knew how much they mattered. He wrote back, “Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.” It meant something once. And, the thing is, it still does. ♦
“More Money, More Problems for Democracy”
“Countering private campaign funding with public campaign funding is the most viable way to limit the political influence of the wealthy.”
Opinion, NYT editorial board
New York Times, February 1, 2020
There is a straight line from the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case to a dinner party the president attended at the Trump International Hotel in Washington in April 2018.
The dinner has attracted attention because Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — associates of President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani — took the opportunity to press Mr. Trump to remove Marie Yovanovitch as the American ambassador to Ukraine as part of a plan to make money from natural gas. That, in turn, is part of the larger saga that has resulted in Mr. Trump’s impeachment for his later efforts to compel Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the dinner also provides a clear view of the ways in which the wealthy seek to influence politicians and politicians gather donations, particularly in the wake of Citizens United. That ruling, handed down almost exactly 10 years ago, allows corporations to spend freely on electioneering, provided the money is not given directly to a candidate or a political party. It is the most famous in a set of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made it far easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to translate their economic power into political power.
The economic inequalities of modern America increasingly are manifest in our politics, too.
At the dinner, donors willing to spend lavishly in support of Mr. Trump’s re-election had the chance to seek the president’s help in placing their own interests above the public interest.
A billionaire whose steel-making company donated $1.75 million to secure his place urged the president to tighten restrictions on steel imports and to let truck drivers work longer hours.
The owner of a trucking company complained that his biggest problem was the need to even have drivers. He sought the president’s support for a 500-mile highway for self-driving trucks.
An executive at an Ohio company that makes natural gas engines argued that natural gas engines deserved the same regulatory leniencies as electric engines, which generate less pollution.
Politicians have always needed money, and wealthy patrons have always found ways to provide it in exchange for special consideration of their needs. “There are two things that are important in politics,” Senator Mark Hanna said more than a century ago. “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
In recent decades, however, a pair of intertwined developments have magnified the influence of money on politics: The rich keep getting richer, and the Supreme Court has made it much easier for politicians to tap that wealth. The result is an arms race that leaves politicians ever more beholden to funders.
The Supreme Court effectively has taken over the work of regulating campaign finance by striking down congressional efforts to restrict money in politics and substituting more permissive standards. The first such decision, Buckley v. Valeo, in 1976, held that election spending is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, although it permitted some restrictions to prevent corruption. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, who was installed in 2005, the court has issued a series of rulings significantly expanding what counts as free speech while simultaneously restricting what can be done to prevent corruption.
In Citizens United, the court struck down restrictions on election spending by corporations and unions, leaving only flimsy prohibitions on giving the money to a candidate or taking instructions from a candidate. The court justified this stance by defining political corruption narrowly — as quid pro quo arrangements in which donations effectively purchase desired political outcomes — and then concluding that the protections it had preserved were sufficient.
Mr. Trump, whose administration has been shaped by his willingness to stretch the law, is providing an object lesson in the consequences of the court’s capacious standards. There’s no reason to think the April 2018 dinner was an unusual event.
The unusual part is only that it was taped by one of the supplicants, Mr. Fruman. The guests were donors or potential donors to America First Action SuperPAC, a political organization with no legal ties to Mr. Trump that still managed to obtain more than an hour of the single most valuable commodity in Washington: the president’s time.
Such super PACs are vehicles for complying with the letter of the law by maintaining the legal fiction that their spending is not controlled by any particular politician or party, while still allowing donors to feel confident that the money will be used for a specific purpose and that the beneficiaries — but often not the general public — will know who deserves their thanks.
Barry Zekelman, the billionaire who spoke with Mr. Trump about steel making, is a Canadian who does not hold American citizenship and therefore cannot legally make donations to American politicians or to super PACs. Instead, Wheatland Tube, an American company that Mr. Zekelman partly owns, donated the $1.75 million to America First Action.
Mr. Zekelman complained to Mr. Trump that mandatory rest breaks for truck drivers made it harder to move his steel pipes to market — and also that they might force a driver to pull over when the driver was close to home. Mr. Trump expressed surprise that the government could enforce such a rule. “They have a method that you shut down a truck?” he asked. “Wow.”
The conversation does not meet the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of corruption, but it would be naïve to pretend that such interactions do not influence the judgments of politicians.
The political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page presented evidence in a 2017 book, “Democracy in America?,” that the wealthiest Americans exercise disproportionate influence, and are particularly successful in blocking even broadly popular policies they don’t like.
Nearly 5,000 Americans died in accidents involving large trucks in 2018, and the annual death toll from such accidents is up by 17 percent since 2008. Allowing drivers to work longer hours, as Mr. Zekelman suggested, would be likely to make matters worse. Studies show that driver fatigue is a frequent factor in fatal crashes. But the families of the victims haven’t paid enough to dine with the president.
Since the dinner, the Trump administration has proposed easing the rest break rules, and congressional Republicans have introduced legislation to exempt smaller trucking firms. Mr. Trump also has continued his efforts to protect steel makers from foreign competition.
Citizens United is bad law. Limits on corporate political spending are a necessary and legitimate check on the economic power the government grants by letting businesses incorporate. But there is little prospect the court will reverse the decision in the foreseeable future, and proponents of a constitutional amendment have a very long road to travel.
Moreover, the problem is broader than Citizens United. Some guests at Mr. Trump’s dinner party made personal donations to America First Action, which could remain legal even if there were limits on corporate donations. The largest political donors in the United States in the 2018 midterm elections were Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and big fan of Israel’s right-wing government, and his wife, Miriam Adelson, who together gave $123.7 million.
And the presidential candidacies of the billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer offer a valuable reminder that even limits on individual donations would not entirely suffice, because billionaires still would be able to fund their own candidacies. Mr. Bloomberg already has spent more than twice as much on his own 2020 campaign as Mr. Adelson spent during the 2018 campaign — including $11 million to air a one-minute ad during the Super Bowl.
The best path forward, therefore, is to limit the influence of wealth by allowing candidates to tap other sources of financial support. The federal government offers funding to presidential candidates, but the system is virtually defunct because it imposes spending limits, and major candidates can raise much more money from private sources.
The House passed a bill last year that would create a system of matching public funding for presidential and congressional candidates. A companion bill is backed by all 47 Senate Democrats. Instead of matching contributions dollar for dollar, the legislation would match each dollar from a private donor, up to $200, with $6 in public funding, up to $1,200. That could allow candidates to run competitively without relying on big donors. It would not prevent billionaires from sponsoring political candidates, but it could allow candidates to run without such sponsorship, and to let voters choose accordingly.
Disclosure is crucial, too: A legal loophole allows political nonprofits to conceal the identities of donors. The Supreme Court has suggested that stronger disclosure requirements would be legal. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked such common-sense changes.
The weight of wealth can seem like an overwhelming force, but there is reason for hope. Consider the example of Seattle, which gave registered voters $100 in “democracy vouchers” to donate to local candidates in its City Council elections last year. The public funding did not come close to matching the spending by third parties, notably Amazon. The giant retailer spent $1.5 million, while city funding for each candidate was capped at $150,000. But it was enough to help several candidates win seats over Amazon’s opposition.
Dan Strauss, one of the new members of the Council, said public funding made his candidacy viable. “I don’t have a rich network of rich friends,” he told a local publication. But “I was able to go to everyday people and say, ‘I need a hundred bucks from you.’”
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“College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics”
January 20, 2020
Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.
Matias is a leader of a group called the Latino Coalition in Haverhill, bringing together the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans who together make up about 20 percent of the residents of the city. The coalition gets out the vote during elections, but it does much more than that.
It has met with its member of Congress and asked for regular, Spanish-speaking office hours for its community. It advocates for policies such as immigration reform for “Dreamers” and federal assistance in affordable housing. On local issues, the demands are more concrete. Dozens of the group’s members have met with the mayor, the school superintendent, and the police department. They want more Latinos in city jobs and serving on city boards. They want the schools to have staff available who can speak with parents in Spanish. They want to know exactly how the city interacts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Matias is engaging in politics—the methodical pursuit of power to influence how the government operates. If she and the community she represents are quiet and not organized, they get ignored. Other interests, sometimes competing interests, prevail. Organizing gives them the ability to get what they want. Much as the civil-rights movement did, Matias is operating with clear goals and discipline, combining electoral strategies with policy advocacy.
Unlike organizers such as Matias, the political hobbyists are disproportionately college-educated white men. They learn about and talk about big important things. Their style of politics is a parlor game in which they debate the issues on their abstract merits. Media commentators and good-government reform groups have generally regarded this as a cleaner, more evolved, less self-interested version of politics compared with the kind of politics that Matias practices.
In reality, political hobbyists have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors. People who have a personal stake in the outcome of politics often have a better understanding of how power can and should be exercised—not just at the polls, once every four years, but person to person, day in and day out.
In the United States, political habits vary significantly by race and education. In a 2018 survey, I found that white people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations. Likewise, those who were college-educated reported that they spend more time on politics than other Americans do—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly on news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent). Ten percent of the time is unclassifiable.
Furthermore, the news that college-educated people consume is unlikely to help them actively participate in politics, because, as the Pew Research Center has found, they are more likely than non-college-educated Americans to rely on national rather than local sources of news. Daily news consumers are very interested in politics, so they say, but they aren’t doing much: In 2016, most reported belonging to zero organizations, having attended zero political meetings in the past year, and having worked zero times with others to solve a community problem.
What explains the rise of political hobbyism? One important historical explanation is the culture of comfort that engulfs college-educated white people, a demographic group that is now predominately Democratic. They have decent jobs and benefits. There has been no military conscription for some 50 years. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol argues that as the percent of Americans with a college degree has increased over time, they have come to feel less special, less like stewards of their community, and less like their communities depend on them. As the college-educated population has grown over time, community participation has, surprisingly, plummeted.
In other words, college-educated people, especially college-educated white people, do politics as hobbyists because they can. On the political left, they may say they fear President Donald Trump. They may lament polarization. But they are pretty comfortable with the status quo. They don’t have the same concrete needs as Matias’s community in Haverhill. Nor do they feel a sense of obligation, of “linked fate,” to people who have concrete needs such that they are willing to be their allies. They might front as allies on social media, but very few white liberals are actively engaging in face-to-face political organizations, committing their time to fighting for racial equality or any other issue they say they care about.
Instead, they are scrolling through their news feeds, keeping up on all the dramatic turns in Washington that satiate their need for an emotional connection to politics but that help them not at all learn how to be good citizens. They can recite the ins and outs of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or fondly recall old 24-hour scandals such as Sharpiegate, but they haven’t the faintest idea how to push for what they care about in their own communities.
If you think the status quo in politics isn’t great, then the time wasted on political hobbyism is pretty tragic. But political hobbyism is worse than just a waste of time. As I argue in my new book, Politics Is for Power, our collective treatment of politics as a sport incentivizes politicians to behave badly. We reward them with attention and money for any red meat they throw at us. Hobbyism also cultivates skills and attitudes that are counterproductive to building power. Rather than practicing patience and empathy like Matias needs to do to win over supporters in Haverhill, hobbyists cultivate outrage and seek instant gratification.
In the democratic party coalition, racial minorities have long operated in tension with the well-educated, cosmopolitan wing of the party. It’s a tension between those who have concrete demands from politics and seek empowerment and those who have enough power that politics is more about self-gratification than fighting for anything. Only if you don’t need more power than you already have could you possibly consider politics a form of consumption from the couch rather than a domain of goals and strategies.
In the 1950s and ’60s, there was a brief movement of activism by “amateur” or “club” Democrats, as they were called. These were middle-class white professionals who met regularly in well-to-do neighborhoods to talk about politics and push a liberal agenda, including civil rights. A criticism levied against these groups was that they were all talk. In 1967, for instance, in their book Black Power, Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and the political scientist Charles Hamilton wrote that African Americans tried for too long to work with groups such as the club Democrats. The authors argued that liberal white professionals didn’t really value black empowerment, often actually impeded black empowerment, and failed to understand the life-and-death consequences for political power. “Let black people organize themselves first,” they wrote, “define their interests and goals, and then see what kinds of allies are available.”
Liberal white hobbyists living in well-to-do white enclaves, especially in blue states, might look at politics today and think that the important stuff is happening elsewhere—in poorer areas of their own state, in swing states, in Republican states, in Washington, D.C.—anywhere but where they live. Ture and Hamilton saw this pattern back in the 1960s. “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters,” they wrote, “has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast-forward to the present day—to a world of increasing inequality in resources, where rich neighborhoods will feature yard signs claiming that everyone is welcome but where zoning rules claim otherwise: If you don’t think there is any work to do in your own town in advancing the cause of racial equality, you are not looking very hard.
In immigrant communities, minority communities, poor communities, politics is about empowerment. When politics is about empowerment, like it is for Matias, community service and political engagement are closely connected. Helping parents navigate school systems, helping neighbors fill out government forms, making sure families have health care and food and security—this is both community service and a fight for basic human needs. Those needs can also be served through attaining political power. And how does one gain power for their values, in the way that Matias does? By working in local organizations that demonstrate to a community of people that you care about their needs. Then, when an election comes or an important meeting happens, the community shows up. That’s the basic formula. That’s real politics. It’s precisely the kind of work that political hobbyists expect someone else to perform while they nod along to MSNBC.
College-educated hobbyists can engage in real politics, too. They’ll need to figure out what needs are unmet and how they can serve them. They’ll need to find local organizations in which they can serve. More fundamentally, they’ll have to figure out which communities they’re willing to fight for. As things stand, their apathy suggests that they already have figured that part out.
This article has been adapted from Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, by Eitan Hersh.
“Report: NM Redistricting Vulnerable To Personal, Partisan Manipulation”
By ELAINE BAUMGARTEL • NOV 20, 2019
Next year’s census will set the stage for redistricting in 2021. A new report examines the history of drawing electoral districts in New Mexico and what state lawmakers could do to ensure a transparent and fair process.
Author Gwyneth Doland is a local journalist and instructor in the University of New Mexico’s Communication and Journalism department. She did the analysis for New Mexico In Depth, and found our redistricting system has structural weaknesses that allow personal and partisan motives to distort the process.
The state took steps to make the redistricting process more transparent last time around, Doland told KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel, by holding meetings across the state and making proposed district maps available online.
Doland: But what every single person I talked to told me – people who are in the legislature now, people who have retired, people who have been out of it for a long time, going back to the 80’s – they all told me this is what happens: They come into this special session which is usually in the fall of the year after the census. They come in, they go into caucus and the Democrats decide what they want to do. They’ve been in power most of the time, so then they tell the Republicans, alright, this is what we’re doing. And then they fight it out a little bit, but it all happens in these private meetings that are not open to the public. Then they bring their plans out and vote on them, and that’s it. Noone’s there, noone’s watching. They haven’t been webcast in the past, so, they effectively get to do whatever they want.
KUNM: What are some of the other things that other states have done to try to make their process more fair and more transparent that either isn’t happening here in New Mexico, or isn’t required, yet?
Doland: There are a lot of things. One thing to keep in mind that several national experts said to me is that every state’s political culture is totally different from the next. There is no one size fits all solution. A lot of states who have taken steps here have gone to a commission structure and it takes it out of the lawmakers’ hands, and you get rid of that incumbent issue, at least.
KUNM: This [incumbency issue] is where lawmakers who are making the redistricting decisions can basically write the lines of their own district to ensure that they for sure will be re-elected by cherry-picking communities that they know support their agenda or their party.
Doland: The way everybody who’s been through this talks about it is, ‘Legislators choose their constituents, not the other way around.’ In other states, they’ve also done things like giving some part of the map drawing to non-partisan staff, like our Legislative Council Service. Have them draw the maps and then just have the lawmakers vote on them. Justin Levitt, who’s a national expert on this, he told me the single most important thing you can do if you don’t do a commission is to ban favoring one party or one candidate and to ban dis-favoring, or trying to put a hit on, one party or one candidate, and that takes care a lot of the partisanship and incumbent protection.
KUNM: Are lawmakers going to do any of these things during the session in 2020? That would be the opportunity, they could put some of these solutions in place so that it would then have an impact on the 2021 redistricting process.
Doland: They could. It’s definitely a thing that is possible, people are talking about it a little more. I’ve talked to some folks in community organizing groups who are a little more motivated than we’ve seen in the past. I will say, the pressure is really just not there. It’s not there from the public and we have single party rule. We will almost certainly go into redistricting with Democrats controlling the [state] House, Democrats controlling the [state] Senate and a Democrat in the governor’s office. That leaves very little pressure to be more fair.
October 1, 2019
“No silver bullets”
by Nick Penniman
I started Issue One five years ago to recruit more voices from inside and outside Washington into the movement fixing our ailing democracy. Since then, I’ve addressed large crowds; sat with members of Congress from both parties; moderated sessions with billionaires; debated professors; convened lawyers, think tanks and advocacy groups; advised political candidates and White House officials, and huddled late into the night with concerned citizens in bookstores and auditoriums in little red towns and big blue cities while on a book tour.
In nearly every setting, I’m almost always asked the same question. Actually, it’s usually an assertion dressed up as a question: What’s the silver bullet for fixing our democracy?
“Gerrymandering, right?” “We just need to get rid of ‘big money’ in politics, right?” “We need to amend the Constitution to get rid of Citizens United before we can do anything. How does that work?” “It’s all about public financing of elections, yes?” “If we just elect enough good people to office — centrists, maybe veterans — then we can get political reform legislation done. Am I wrong?”
Others: “Let’s get everyone to vote. Like Australia.” “The most important thing is to secure the ballot box.” “Ranked-choice voting changes everything.” “How about open primaries?” “Why aren’t you working on eliminating the Electoral College?” “Civic education. We need to get facts into people’s hands.” Or “Congress will never clean up its act, you should put your effort into the states.”
And, others: “If we just had term limits, then most of these other structural problems would be irrelevant.” “National service is the key. It’ll create a new generation of people who are civically minded.” “What about the filibuster? Shouldn’t we get rid of that?”
The list goes on. It can be dizzying.
The honest answer is, it’s all true: There is no silver bullet.
Gerrymandering is a form of political disenfranchisement that increases polarization. Money and lobbying too often dominate policymaking in Washington. Voting innovations, and improving voters’ choices, would increase participation and competition. Elevating national service, while encouraging great public servants to run, would help improve the culture of governing. Reforming congressional rules and providing stronger support systems for members of Congress is also necessary.
Taken together, such reforms would put our republic back on track to being the envy of the world. Taken individually, none are enough to get the job done.
What’s baffling is why philanthropists and concerned citizens demand a single fix for political reform when they don’t in other realms. Education reform, climate change, reducing the prison population, rebuilding the middle class, tackling the federal debt, fighting terrorism: They all require dozens, sometimes hundreds, of both major and minor initiatives.
Imagine if the sole focus of political reform was electing more “problem solvers” to Congress. It’s a valuable goal. But gerrymandering and binary voting systems stand in the way of such people ever making it onto the ballot in the first place, or winning if they do. Even if the right member of Congress is elected, they are pressed against their cell phones all day raising money for their campaign war chests — in part to fend off “dark money” and superPACs — often from wealthy, highly partisan, ideologically motivated donors.
They’re additionally raising money to meet fundraising “quotas” imposed by the Republican and Democratic parties, with the hope of currying enough favor to get appointed to a committee chairmanship. Those who become chairmen, then have to raise even more money, when they should be spending more time overseeing their committee. Many members have told me they don’t have time to solve problems, and their donors don’t really want them to reach across the aisle. All of these factors pose additional hurdles for those who want to run for office in the first place.
As the saying goes: “Problems look simple when you leave out the details.” American democracy is in crisis after several years of neglect, but fixing it is not so easy.
In the grand scheme of human history, democracy is still a germ of an idea. Of the roughly 5,000 years of recorded history, democratic government has been a mere blip on the radar screen that fades in and out of obscurity. Dictators and totalitarian regimes are the norm. Democracy is the exception. One of the early versions of it lasted for a few hundred years in ancient Greece, then was discarded in favor of emperors. For the next 1,200 years there were little experiments here and there, mostly at small scales in communes and towns across Europe. Parliaments begin cropping up in the 1200s, and spread across Western Europe, but mainly served as powerless advisory boards for kings.
Then the American Revolution took fire and its principles were codified into a modern democratic republic, underscored by a Bill of Rights, in 1788. Since then, democracy has had a raging run down the field. But we’ve also witnessed regressions in Turkey, Hungary and many other countries that once seemed like harbingers of a positive trend and now may be early markers of a larger collapse. We also see countries prop up the facade of democracy to cover up their autocratic regimes, like Russia, and then never go a step farther.
So as this new era of reform to save American democracy begins, let’s remember that the search for a silver bullet is a distraction. We need to embrace the complexity of the system and the solutions. Although there is no silver bullet, Issue One (and other organizations like us) has a clear focus on certain areas: securing our elections, eliminating dark money, increasing accountability in Congress and building a bipartisan political coalition that can win game-changing reforms.
Now we need philanthropists and citizens to fuel the social movement fighting for democracy reform so it can pursue multiple solutions at once — and fight like hell to get them done.
Nick Penniman is the CEO of Issue One, a cross-partisan political reform group. (It is incubating, but journalistically independent from, The Fulcrum.)
“Constitution Day: The 28th Amendment Will Move Us Closer To The American Promise”
International Business Times
09/17/19 AT 12:10 AM
by Jeff Clements and Cheryl Crawford
Today, on the 232nd anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, our nation is in crisis. The representative democracy promised in the Constitution is under threat. Last week a report delivered to Congress said 1,688 polling places have closed since 2013 in jurisdictions that, until a Supreme Court decision that year, were subject to federal elections oversight because of histories of voting discrimination.
Earlier this year a divided Supreme Court ruled that shaping political districts for partisan benefit is a political question the courts have no role in ending. Now the partisan majorities won via the billions of dollars pouring into our elections can then rewrite districting lines to ensure this purchased partisan control retains its power.
The 2020 elections are predicted to cost more than $10 billion, once again shattering past spending records. Most of this money will come from a tiny portion of Americans, global corporations, some big unions, and other undisclosed sources.
This happened because the Supreme Court, not the people, made up a new constitutional theory that money is just free speech and even the most global corporations have the same rights as Americans to “speak” with corporate money. A series of disastrous decisions reversed more than a century of law on how money is used in elections, including the Court’s ruling in 2010 that corporations and unions have a free-speech right to use unlimited funds to influence the outcome of elections.
The results of this reckless First Amendment distortion now are clear: Billions of dollars from the most partisan and self-interested elites drown out the voices of Americans, deprive voters of diverse views and candidates to choose from, block any compromise and action on overdue and urgent needs, and increase alienation and cynicism. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans, by a 2-1 ratio, now believe our “vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.”
This is far from the first time our nation has faced a crisis of democracy. The Constitution’s framers completed their work in Philadelphia 232 years ago, but that was the beginning, not the end, of creating the architecture of our American republic. Nearly half of today’s Constitution was not written in 1787 but was built by the people, all Americans, who have won 27 constitutional amendments, including a dozen in the 20th century.
Throughout our nation’s history, amendments—often driven by those whose rights were being denied—moved America closer to realizing the promise of our Revolution and our Constitution. Today, Americans are doing it again.
On this Constitution Day, dozens of legal scholars have called for a constitutional amendment to end the Supreme Court’s reckless experiment in forcing unlimited money into American elections, silencing the voices and concerns of most citizens and voters in the states. These include Harvard Law School’s Laurence Tribe and Laura Weinrib; Walter “Bud” Carpeneti, former Chief Justice for the Alaska Supreme Court; Adam Winkler, professor at UCLA School of Law; Caroline Frederickson, President Emerita of the American Constitution Society; and former Senator John McCain’s counsel Trevor Potter, and many more.
But lawyers and judges won’t get us out of the deep mess our nation is in now. Instead, we need the same people who used the constitutional amendment process to win the Bill of Rights, end slavery, mandate equal protection of the laws and voting rights regardless of race, and overturned disastrous Supreme Court decisons to win women and Americans over 18 years old the right to vote, among other milestones of our national experience.
Who were these superheroes? Everyday American citizens just like all of us today. They put aside partisan games, selfish interests and the understandable wish to avoid political engagement to rise to the challenge of building the national consensus and action needed for constitutional amendments.
Now, when the power of the few dominates the rights of the many, Americans are coming together once again to renew the Constitution through the amendment process. And a movement to make the amendment work after it is ratified already is building. After all, amendments make equal rights but those must be enforced: A century of civil rights struggle has been necessary and still is necessary to vindicate the 14th and 15th Amendments’ guarantee of political equality regardless of race.
Constitution Day celebrates the extraordinary promise of an American republic based on equal rights, human liberty and effective self-government. But no one can deliver on that promise but us, ordinary American citizens. A nation of ideals such as ours will rise or fall depending on whether ordinary people bring extraordinary courage and persistence to our political life.
American Promise is committed to an audacious goal: to bring Americans together to ratify a constitutional amendment, an amendment that will secure the equal rights of every American to free speech and real representation, and end the domination of unlimited, concentrated money that prevents solutions to every big problem in our nation.
Today, it is good to remember that all of us are called to defend and secure the Constitution and rights we rightly celebrate today.
Jeff Clements is the Founder and President of American Promise; Cheryl Crawford is the Executive Director of MassVote.
“Three reasons Republicans should support the 28th Amendment”
September 11, 2019
by John Wass
While it has garnered widespread support among Americans across the political spectrum for years, the movement for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution to end the domination of big money in our political system now is gaining significant traction in Washington. Thus far 11 current and former 2020 presidential candidates have signed the American Promise Pledge to support a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics, and measures proposing such an amendment have 180 co-sponsors between the House and Senate.
However, only one of those 180 co-sponsors is a Republican: Rep. John Katko from New York’s 24th District. The currently lopsided support for this effort highlights how destructive partisan politics can block individuals from acting on their private convictions.
The idea of limiting big money in politics is actually a bedrock conservative principle, supported by a significant majority of conservative voters. “Draining the swamp” was among the driving forces that led to President Trump’s election. “Cronyism” has been a concern of conservative voters for decades, and Milton Friedman himself sounded the alarm over a system where businesses compete by seeking government favors. And many former Republican elected officials publicly support a 28th Amendment.
We can only imagine many sitting Republicans in Congress agree, but are hesitant to make that support public in the current contentious environment. Here are three reasons why Republican elected officials should set the record straight and reclaim leadership of the principles they have been committed to for so long.
1. Perceived corruption is undermining free-market capitalism
In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Republican former state Sen. Jim Rubens of New Hampshire writes about the reasons the dominance of big money in politics leads to less freedom in the free market: “Business competes by buying influence or submitting to extortion in Washington, rather than by offering better products and services to consumers. Free markets are becoming crony capitalism.”
Surveys show growing numbers are losing faith in free market capitalism and representative democracy. In 2015, the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization, released the report“Crony Capitalism,” which concluded: “The remarkable success of capitalism in the United States has been made possible by widespread public support for that system. Sadly, in recent years, and especially since the September 2008 financial crisis, that support has seriously eroded. Increasingly the public is coming to view the system as unfairly benefitting the few and as favoring Wall Street over Main Street.”
This is true especially among younger Americans and non-white Americans, both of whom will soon be majority voting blocks. Today 61 percent of Americans age 18-24 have a positive view of socialism, according to a recent Harris Poll.
Left unchecked, the report says, crony capitalism will continue to undermine public support for the American model of capitalism — and sap vitality from the economy. “This adds urgency to the task of finding solutions to the rise of crony capitalism.”
2. Political money is undermining economic dynamism and innovation
The United States has seen a long-term decline in business startups and a growth in the economic power of entrenched companies according to The Hamilton Project’s team. According to a report from the Economic Innovation Group, which tracks America’s economic vibrancy, “The entrepreneurial and restless energy that once defined the United States seems to be evaporating as the economy grows more static, top-heavy, and concentrated. The decline of dynamism has been steep, rapid, and pervasive across all states.”
The influx of money into our political system resulting from shifts in the law and Supreme Court decisions has led to skyrocketing election spending, and with it an escalating dependence on fundraising in Washington. This means the biggest players in the economy can increasingly shape the rules to their own benefit — leading to a top-heavy system designed to benefit entrenched players at the expense of competitors. The CED report describes “three interconnected trends responsible for distorting our economic system: a rise in the size and scope of government, campaign costs and lobbying.”
3. The big money system is tipping to favor Democrats
Despite the critical importance of the previous two points, a cynic may argue that being better at playing the big money system gives Republicans the electoral edge. But that argument falters as Democrats begin to overtake Republicans in the big money spending race.
In 2018, liberal dark money groups outspent conservatives, and out-of-state liberal dark money groups have swayed recent state political contests, including Alabama’s special Senate election. The pay-to-play political system is a costly arms race without a positive end for anyone but powerful special interests, who are successfully gaining outsize influence while undermining capitalism and democracy.
As recently affirmed by the Business Roundtable, our country has achieved two centuries of economic and political dominance based in large part on its belief in two revolutionary systems: the free-market economy and representative democracy. These systems have paved the way for our nation to improve the lives of its millions of citizens.
Today, faith in these systems has been shattered by the Supreme Court-sanctioned domination of wealth and concentrated power over our political system. Now is the time for political leaders of every ideological persuasion to align with the people and address the greatest danger threatening the very heart of our great nation: a pay-to-play political system that is rapidly transforming our republic into an oligarchy.
John Wass is board chairman of American Promise, which seeks to limit the power of corporate, union, political party and super PAC money in politics.
“Jim Rubens: 28th Amendment”
Conway Daily Sun
September 6, 2019
Two weeks ago, the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), with 46 co-sponsors, including seven presidential candidates. In January, the same bill — to impose reasonable limits on campaign money while protecting free speech rights — was sponsored by 133 House members. Unfortunately, only one of these 180 total members is a Republican, brave and lonely New York Rep. John Katko.
This lack of support leaves congressional Republicans wildly and egregiously out of step with Republican voters, 66 percent of whom support an amendment to address big-money political corruption. This intense anti-corruption sentiment powered Donald Trump’s popular “drain the swamp” message used in the lead-up to his 2016 election.
Tackling corruption is a slow-burn national emergency. Public confidence in two of our nation’s central organizing institutions — free-market capitalism and representative democracy — is approaching failed-state status.
Today, 61 percent of Americans aged 18-24 have a positive reaction to socialism in a recent Harris Poll. By 54 to 40 percent, non-whites (projected to be the majority of voters in a generation) now prefer government rather than free-market control over the economy.
Our form of government, the American constitutional republic, is and was a bold and visionary advance in liberty. Today, only 17 percent of voters trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. A majority now believes that government corruption — legalized bribery and extortion — is our nation’s biggest crisis, with 87 percent viewing political corruption as “widespread.”
These twin collapses in confidence are joined at the hip. Big government occupies and controls a larger share of the economy and increasingly picks economic winners and losers via tax subsidies, regulatory carve-outs, spending programs and contract awards. Business competes by buying influence or submitting to extortion in Washington, rather than by offering better products and services to consumers. Free markets are becoming crony capitalism. The public accurately views this pay-to-play system as rigged against most of us.
The Conference Board, one of our nation’s leading champions of the enduring virtues of free-market capitalism, singles out today’s big-money, special-interest dominated campaign finance system as suppressing product innovation and market competition and eroding public support for capitalism.
Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the unanimous Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan decision, recognized the gravity of the corruption problem and the need for a constitutional solution. As both the House and Senate did by rule a dusty 200-plus years ago, Congress could require all members to recuse themselves, like judges, from voting on any measure where they have a conflict of interest. Such conflicts include campaign contributions, independent election expenditures and personal, business or family-member financial or career interests.In finding mandatory recusal constitutional, Justice Scalia wrote, “the legislative power thus committed is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people.”
In theory, I love this solution. But it will not happen because today’s complex economy and costly campaigns would place most members of Congress in constant recusal handcuffs.
Fortunately, there is a thoroughly workable solution, one that lays a foundation of defense of free-market capitalism and restoration of public trust in government: a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition to this critical foundation, we Republicans have two more solid reasons to back a 28th Amendment.
Big-money players such as billionaires Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg or Sheldon Adelson, unions, Super PACs, dark-money 501(c)(4)s and laundered foreign money sources now routinely target swing districts and Senate seats. These players recruit and screen candidates and flood districts with out-of-state money, determining which candidates are financially viable and get media attention. In New Hampshire, with only 1 million voters, $132 million was spent on the 2016 U.S. Senate election, decided for the Democrat by 1,700 votes. Ninety-five percent of those dollars flowed from out of state.
Swing races have become increasingly nationalized. Preferences of local voters and the specific needs of your state or district are distinctly secondary. Candidate choice, debate and policy innovation are all suppressed. First Amendment rights are monopolized by a tiny number of big money players from New York, San Francisco — and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Republicans have been operating under the cynical misconception that we are better at the big-money game than Democrats. Reality is that Democrats have recently gotten better than Republicans at the out-of-state, big-money game. For the 2018 cycle nationally, liberal dark money groups outspent conservatives 54-to-31.
Republicans and Democrats will not usually agree on how to address our nation’s challenges. But we must agree on action to restore public trust in our central economic and governing institutions. Whether you are a more principled or more pragmatic Republican, you have solid reasons to ask your Republican member of Congress to co-sponsor the 28th Amendment.
Jim Rubens was a Republican state senator from New Hampshire and candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014 and 2016. He is New England chair for Take Back Our Republic and board member for American Promise.
“The Super-Wealthy Have Outsize Influence in Politics. Here’s How We Can Change That”
— Senator Tom Udall
August 14, 2019
In 2018, the 10 largest individual donors funneled more than $436 million to Super PACs in the most expensive midterm elections ever. Big money in politics has overwhelmed the political process, granting wealthy special interests more power now than at any time in recent American history. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC and other court decisions left Congress and the states constitutionally prohibited from putting limits on raising and spending money in elections, unleashing a flood of corporate dollars in U.S. elections and opening the door for the super-rich to fuel their own interests in our government at the expense of ordinary Americans. While this trend has been decades in the making, these decisions further dismantled our campaign finance laws.
This summer, I joined with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and other Senate Democrats to introduce the Democracy for All Amendment, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. FEC and other disastrous court decisions. The amendment would give Congress and the states the power “to regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections” as well to draw a distinction “between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law.”
When corporations and the super-rich have the ability to spend a limitless amount of money, they can not only influence elections but also set the political agenda. Take the Koch brothers as an example. Unlimited campaign contributions have allowed them to use millions of dollars to pervasively, perniciously and secretly influence the public policy. For instance, President Trump has staffed the White House and federal agencies with key officials tied to the Kochs who have systematically worked to discredit renewable energy, promote fossil fuels and deny climate science.
As a result of this type of spending, the American people are losing faith in our political system. Nearly eight in 10 voters said in a September 2018 poll that “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” was either the “single most” or a “very important” factor in casting their midterm vote. And Americans overwhelmingly support limits on campaign spending.
The first step in fixing our broken campaign finance system is to sustainably address the root of the problem created by the Supreme Court. While it’s true that constitutional amendments are warranted in only the rarest of circumstances, this is undoubtedly one of those moments in our country’s history. Unlimited spending concentrated in the hands of a few continues to spiral out of control, distorting the voices of everyday citizens and putting the foundation of our democracy at risk.
Too many Americans have every reason to believe that their government no longer answers to them. And because the Supreme Court has now reinforced the misguided idea that spending money to elect politicians is the same thing as free speech, our broken campaign finance system lets billionaires and corporations have outsize influence in our elections. If we want to make progress on the very real problems Americans face, we have to create a democracy that is fair and open to all.
I urge Americans everywhere to contact your state and federal representatives and demand they support the Democracy for All Amendment. We need two-thirds support of all state legislatures as well as the Senate and the House in order to enact this monumental amendment to our Constitution. This amendment would take power back from wealthy special interests and put it back where it belongs: In the hands of “we, the people.
Tom Udall is a U.S. senator from New Mexico.
“Republicans should get behind the 28th Amendment”
– Jim Rubens
August 8, 2019
Last week the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), with 46 co-sponsors, including seven presidential candidates. In January, the same bill—to impose reasonable limits on campaign money while protecting free speech rights—was sponsored by 133 House members. Unfortunately, only one of these 180 total members is a Republican, brave and lonely New York Rep. John Katko.
This lack of support leaves Congressional Republicans wildly and egregiously out of step with Republican voters, 66 percent of whom support an amendment to address big-money political corruption. This intense anti-corruption sentiment powered Donald Trump’s popular “drain the swamp” message used in the leadup to his 2016 election.
Tackling corruption is a slow-burn national emergency. Public confidence in two of our nation’s central organizing institutions—free-market capitalism and representative democracy—is approaching failed-state status.
Our Founders unleashed free-market capitalism, creating greater wealth, progress and well-being here and abroad than in all of prior human history. Today, 61 percent of Americans aged 18-24 have a positive reaction to socialism in a recent Harris Poll. By 54 to 40 percent, non-whites (projected to be the majority of voters in a generation) now prefer government rather than free-market control over the economy.
Our form of government, the American constitutional republic, is and was a bold and visionary advance in liberty. Today, only 17 percent of voters trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. A majority now believes that government corruption—legalized bribery and extortion—is our nation’s biggest crisis, with 87 percent viewing political corruption as “widespread.”
These twin collapses in confidence are joined at the hip. Big government occupies and controls a larger share of the economy and increasingly picks economic winners and losers via tax subsidies, regulatory carve-outs, spending programs and contract awards. Business competes by buying influence or submitting to extortion in Washington, rather than by offering better products and services to consumers. Free markets are becoming crony capitalism. The public accurately views this pay-to-play system as rigged against most of us.
The Conference Board, one of our nation’s leading champions of the enduring virtues of free-market capitalism, singles out today’s big-money, special-interest dominated campaign finance system as suppressing product innovation and market competition and eroding public support for capitalism. This crony capitalism is a direct threat to free-market capitalism and a dynamic, globally competitive American economy.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the unanimous Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan decision, recognized the gravity of the corruption problem and the need for a constitutional solution. As both the House and Senate did by rule a dusty 200-plus years ago, Congress could require all members to recuse themselves, like judges, from voting on any measure where they have a conflict of interest. Such conflicts include campaign contributions, independent election expenditures and personal, business or family-member financial or career interests perceivably affected by the vote. In finding mandatory recusal constitutional, Justice Scalia wrote, “[t]he legislative power thus committed is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people.”
In theory, I love this solution. But it will not happen because today’s complex economy and costly campaigns would place most members of Congress in constant recusal handcuffs.
Fortunately, there is a thoroughly workable solution, one which lays a foundation of defense of free-market capitalism and restoration of public trust in government: a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition to this critical foundation, we Republicans have two more solid reasons to back a 28th Amendment.
Big-money players such as billionaires Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg or Sheldon Adelson, unions, SuperPACs, dark-money 501.c4s and laundered foreign money sources now routinely target swing districts and Senate seats. These players recruit and screen candidates and flood districts with out-of-state money, determining which candidates are financially viable and get media attention. In my home state of New Hampshire, with only 1 million voters, $132 million was spent on the 2016 U.S. Senate election, decided for the Democrat by 1,700 votes. Ninety-five percent of those dollars flowed from out of state.
Swing races have become increasingly nationalized. Preferences of local voters and the specific needs of your state or district are distinctly secondary. Candidate choice, debate and policy innovation are all suppressed. Big money is killing democracy’s laboratories, constitutional federalism and the 10th Amendment. First Amendment rights are monopolized by a tiny number of big money players from New York, San Francisco—and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Republicans have been operating under the cynical misconception that we are better at the big-money game than Democrats. Reality is that Democrats have recently gotten better than Republicans at the out-of-state, big-money game. For the 2018 cycle nationally, liberal dark money groups outspent conservatives 54/31. In Alabama’s 2017 special Senate election Democrat Doug Jones won by 1.7 percent. LinkedIn co-founder and billionaire California Democrat Reid Hoffman funded the dark-money operation which likely tipped this election outcome.
Republicans and Democrats will not usually agree on how to address our nation’s challenges. But we must agree on action to restore public trust in our central economic and governing institutions. Whether you are a more principled or more pragmatic Republican, you have solid reasons to ask your Republican member of Congress to co-sponsor the 28th Amendment, S.J.Res.51 or H.J.Res.2
Jim Rubens was a Republican state senator from New Hampshire and candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014 and 2016.