New U.S. election rules open donation spigots for the very rich

Last week's Supreme Court ruling, blowing away the limits on U.S. campaign donations in the name of free speech, is a particular benefit to the super rich, Neil Macdonald writes. Anyone with $15 million to spend can now really play the field.

Supreme Court decision will mean money matters even more in U.S. politics

Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court last fall when it was holding hearings on campaign contributions. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

America is a particularly wonderful place to be really rich. You can buy just about anything you want here. And the list of available luxuries just got bigger.

After its latest ruling on campaign finance last week, humourist Andy Borowitz posted this observation on the New Yorker's website: "Supreme Court defends wealthy's right to own government."

It was satire of the best sort — almost indistinguishable from truth.

The court's conservative justices, at the request of the Republican Party, have now bulldozed away almost all restrictions on campaign donations, just in time for the midterm congressional elections this fall.

The bipartisan McCain-Feingold law, in which U.S. lawmakers once recognized money's potential to warp democracy, is now flayed and gutted.

And given that cash is the single most consistent determinant in the American electoral system, that means the one-tenth of one per cent of the population that controls the vast majority of the nation's wealth may now proceed to shape America's governments as it pleases.

Last week's decision, in the name of free speech, all but removed the aggregate spending limit on any one donor.

Until this decision, a political donor was limited to $74,600 worth of contributions to party committees and $48,600 to candidates in each two-year election cycle. The Supreme Court effectively lifted that limit to a combined total that could, theoretically, exceed $15 million.

It was the second big win at the high court for Republicans (the Republican National Committee actually helped fund the appeal).

In 2010, in a case brought by the pro-Republican activist group Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the amount corporations can spend to elect a candidate.

Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, immediately declared the latest decision "an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees, and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse."

Republican supporter Shaun McCutcheon, who sparked the change in campaign finance laws. The owner of an electrical engineering firm outside Birmingham, Ala., McCutcheon wanted to donate to multiple candidates and political committees but was limited by a legislated cap. (Reuters)

There is some truth to that, just as there is a particularly American form of logic in the court's ruling.

Spending one's own money to express a political opinion or support a candidate undeniably constitutes free expression and economic freedom in a capitalist system. And expression is categorically protected by the U.S. Constitution.

But for Republicans to talk about transparency is beyond brazen.

Republicans in Congress have routinely defeated any attempt to force the so-called "super-PACs" — ultra-moneyed political action committees — to disclose the identity of their donors, thereby ensuring that rich activists can operate beneath a cloak of anonymity.

Wielding power from the shadows, always the favoured approach for oligarchs, is therefore a legal right in America.

Put that together with the court decisions obliterating spending limits, and that power goes from tremendous to almost frightening.

Forget Jimmy Stewart

American politics is, of course, saturated and fuelled by money. Unless you can raise millions to slag your opponents on TV ads, it's pointless to even try to run for Congress.

The American dream — that anyone can grow up to be president — now has an asterisk: anyone who can raise several hundred million dollars.

It may sound naïve to say this, but money has bent the spine of American democracy.

If you are, for example, a candidate for office who happens to agree with most Americans that at least some restrictions should be placed on gun ownership, the National Rifle Association will target and sink you with negative ads. Even a massacre of schoolchildren couldn't change that bleak reality.

Want to bust unions with "right to work" laws? Put paid to climate change legislation? Kill universal health care? Keep a lid on the minimum wage? Ensure ever lower taxes for your super-wealthy cohort?

There are always politicians ready to push those agendas, and there is now virtually no limit to the amount exceedingly rich donors can spend to install them in power.

In theory, a politician can still turn to the system Barack Obama used to fund his campaigns.

While Obama did collect from the rich, 30 per cent of his donations came from crowdsourcing — people who gave less than $100, according to the fact checkers at the Tampa Bay Times Another 28 per cent came from donors who coughed up less than $1,000.

In his dissent, read from the bench to stress the point, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said that opening the doors so wide to moneyed interest would only alienate the average voter. (Associated Press)

Obama, though, was a phenomenon; what he accomplished in 2008 was a rare flash of true populism that is not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

In fact, Americans are increasingly concluding that politics, like the stock market, is rigged by the money men.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer made just that point last week, warning from the bench on behalf of the dissenting liberal justices that letting the wealthy spend as much as they want will alienate ordinary voters.

But here's a question: If Republicans are indeed the party of the average voter, as they insist, and the Democrats are elitists backed by Hollywood millionaires, as Republicans also insist, why are Republicans now so intent on tearing down the campaign finance laws that they themselves played such a role in creating?

Perhaps it is because the Republicans are not the party of the average voter, and they know they will never replicate what Obama did.

They have become foot soldiers for the people who really run this country, as the dark comic George Carlin used to say.

But this is America, and that role is not just permissible, it's constitutional.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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