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From Democracy to Plutocracy

by Alexander Hilton 4 years ago in voting

The Federal Election Commission and the Fall of American Democracy

“The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread to the law courts, and then to the army, and finally, the Republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.” - Plutarch

2016 was a strange year. No surprise, Donald Trump became President in a controversial election cycle where Hillary Clinton seemed destined to win. It seems like American politics has gone completely insane since. From calls for impeachment to Russian collusion to the policies that are being put forward to Twitter, nothing seems normal.

But that’s the thing—it has been like this for a very long time. Politics in the United States has descended into a slog of polarizing issues that divide the nation into two categories; a black and white divide that ensures you are on one side or the other. There is no middle ground or thought analysis—not thoughts on what might be another way that seems to permeate longer than a few seconds.

That’s not what a democracy is. A democracy would want a debate and many sides of issues to look for solutions and resolve what is best for the population as a whole. A polarized democracy just isn’t a democracy, it is something else. On some issues, there are clear divides, but in the US, it seems to be on every level of policy.

But democracy doesn’t die overnight and people still go to the voting booths, so what exactly has the United States become? When did democracy start devolving?

Now I know some of you are probably saying that America was never a democracy, but a republic. Though true, democratic principles are underlying in the Constitution. “We the People…” is not what modern politics seems to be about anymore.

After a bit of time and thought, I think the answer becomes a bit clear when the most change started to happen and what it has led to. The 2016 election was an awakening and with all eyes fixed on the last year of politics nationwide, it should become clear what has happened.

Money purchased American democracy.

This is why everything has started to unwind so fast. People gawked at the Citizen United decision, but that was only the last case and one that rested on precedent. What really put our democracy up for sale happened in the 1970s.

That is when America changed the most.

The Federal Election Commission and the Descent Into Madness

The creation and amendments of the Federal Election Commission along with the subsequent Supreme Court decisions established Political Action Committees and created an influx of campaign donations from wealthy donors and corporations. This increase in campaign spending has drastically changed the political landscape of the United States, particularly leading to an arguable rise of corporatism and, as a counteraction, populism most highlighted by the 2016 election and the United States losing its status as a full democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit in January of 2017.

In 1974, the Federal Election Commission was founded after amendments were made to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The FEC had a wide range of powers, including that of being able to limit campaign spending, given that the FEC’s purpose was as per the FEC’s website to “disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections.” However, the Supreme Court in the Buckley vs Valeo decision found that limiting campaign spending was a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. This decision put severe limitations on the FEC and its ability to regulate campaign spending, but still allowed it to limit individual campaign contributions. However, the Supreme Court did not stipulate limits on campaign spending or limiting the influence of groups paying for certain expenditures, which paved the way for Political Action Committees to become the main driving financial force behind politics in the United States. These PACs have represented both individuals and corporations and have certainly changed the way politics are conducted in the United States and has had a drastic impact on both the Republican and Democratic parties.

History of Money in Politics

While politics and money have been intertwined since nearly the invention of government and currency, with one of the earliest examples known coming from Roman times, the recent Congressional and Supreme Court decisions have caused more turmoil within each of the major American parties that no one could have anticipated at the time. Since campaign spending in the United States goes back to the founding fathers, it can be difficult to admit that even the great George Washington wasn’t beyond the occasional schmooze, given that in a 1758 Virginia House campaign, he spent over 90 percent of his budget on alcohol to give to his voters and sway them, having gained a massive majority from his 1755 campaign.

The concept is not foreign, but on the scale and degree of which it has been executed the concept is odd to most of the modern, developed world, in 2009, most countries had noticed a dip in campaign spending, while the United States had seen its usual uptake in its own election being the first presidential campaign to cost over a billion dollars. While it should be expected that, with inflation and changes in technology, campaign spending will inevitably go up, the exponential increase in spending in the United States goes beyond the realm of correlating with that of inflation and population growth which some have suggested.

This has had a huge impact on politics since the 1970s. In fact, a Princeton study over twenty years between 1981 and 2002 determined that, on nearly two thousand policy positions, public opinion had no effect, but they also looked at the top one percent and campaign donors’ opinions which had a near direct correlation.

Simply put, while campaign spending has existed since the origins of politics within the United States, even compared to the rest of the world where there are countries with many more political parties and even those countries in which dictatorships are suppressing elections, the United States, per capita, is the largest spender on campaign contributions than every other nation. This has changed the political parties in a major way having been shown that there was next-to-no correlation between United States Policy and public opinion.

While the rest of the planet has its own issues with major corporations attempting to infringe on the rights of individuals, the United States has made strides to embrace these major companies to the point that the United States has caused major economic shifts, utilizing the military-driven by the military-industrial complex to wage perpetual war on drugs and terrorism. While valid threats in and of themselves, the American political system has set up the means such that corporations capitalizing on each of these endeavors.

These groups, however, are not responsible for these profits, but the Courts that set the system up in such a way that would allow for companies to lobby and push for policies that many Americans would disagree with. Sadly many of these changes were caused by a significant increase in human and civil rights in the United States with the Civil Rights Acts, which led to the Southern Strategy cherished by an arguably successful, yet potentially decisive, politician, Richard Nixon.

Here Comes Nixon

Nixon, unlike many before, had a road to navigate in his 1972 campaign. With the newly created Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, Nixon had a peculiar election with George McGovern, which found Nixon winning all but one state and DC in a near landslide due to some odd means, one of which was where his campaign spending came from. Given all the irregularities in that election, including that of Watergate, it is no surprise that Nixon’s campaign spending went under the radar in the minds of the American public, but as a strategy, having carried so many states and delegates, did not go unnoticed by the now developing "think tanks" that would later be responsible for the creation of Political Action Committees and lobbyist which now influence United States policies today.

While Nixon and his 1970 presidential campaign drew corporate money, despite being illegal at the time, Nixon was just a greater symptom of a developing problem. What can be noted here is that, ever since the Civil Rights movement and the Southern Strategy in 1970, the very year Nixon began attracting illegal corporate financing, caused a huge shakeup in the political parties in the United States. This shakeup made it easy for both parties to shift policy. Whether the Democrats intended it, Nixon chose to do for Republicans.

But the problem that Nixon created through his choices, along with after effects of the Civil Rights Movement, which created a rift in the country, allowed for conservative and pro-capitalist, yet not to the level of oligarchy nor plutocracy, Justices to be nominated. While the concept of donations to campaigns being free speech was unanimous in the Supreme Court during the Buckley vs Valeo decision in 1976, this was not the largest contributing factor like the First National Bank of Boston vs Bellotti decision later in 1978. What the Buckley vs Valeo decision laid the groundwork for was no limits on campaign spending, but what the Bellotti decision allowed for was much more particular. The Bellotti decision allowed corporations to donate to campaigns; they could buy all the TV ads available and influence voters and policy directly.

The Bellotti decision, built on the Valeo decision, created a whole new culture in the United States. Unlike the Valeo decision, the Bellotti decision was divided by only one vote. One thing to note is that it wasn’t Republicans, but primarily Democrats—a party in transition that made the deciding votes. With the Watergate issues and the old school Democrats determining the make-up of the court, it is almost a surprise that the margin was so close. Democratic-nominated Justices came out for money in politics specifically in the Bellotti decision. However, the Bellotti decision highlighted issues created by both the Valeo decision and Nixon’s Southern Strategy. It changes the political landscape of the United States.

The Bellotti decision, while focused on state referendum over federal elections, was instrumental in setting the precedent that corporations be allowed first amendment protections, which, when linked to Buckley vs Valeo, meant that corporations could speak with their wallets legally. This began to gradually shift the country in a more pro-corporate direction. A recent example of this is the 2016 election in California, Proposition 61, Drug Price Standards Initiative. This ballot measure was the most expensive ballot measure in the 2016 election, with a combined amount of money raised of $128.1 million to decrease the price of prescription drug prices in the state of California. The pharmaceutical companies overwhelmingly wanted to keep prices up to protect their profits and raised $109 million dollars using Political Action Committees, specifically the Californians Against the Deceptive Rx Proposition. Despite initial polling showing that most Californians were overwhelmingly in support of the proposition, the share amount of capital pumped into the measure shifted support so that the proposition only failed by six percent of points despite the near five to one spending. This is just one of many decisions since the Bellotti decision where corporate interests have changed, possibly even subverted, the will of the people.

Between the Bellotti and Valeo decisions, Political Action Committees started to take hold of campaign financing across the board. The Republicans had already under Nixon were already taking money from wealthy donors and corporations, but with it legalized, were more than willing to take PAC money out in the open. This led to a hard time for Democrats who, since the Supreme Court decisions, struggled in federal races—in particular, the presidential races. While the patterns were just emerging, the Democrats did not yet realize that campaign spending was nearly directly correlated with winning the presidency, the only exception to that rule after 1976 was the 2016 election where Clinton outspent Trump, but the argument is that Trump received five billion dollars in free media as mainstream media often focused on him. However, the 1960-2012 elections can be seen to demonstrate this correlation following 1976.

The 2016 presidential cycle highlights the impact of Super PACs, distinguished by the original Political Action Committees as being unlimited in scope, but cannot donate directly to campaigns, thus don’t need to report the identities of those contributing. However, as history has made clear, minus the 2016 election, there is a strong correlation between campaign spending and winning that election cycle. The Democrats didn’t seem to get fully behind this until a more centrist candidate came along with Bill Clinton in 1992.

Bill Clinton, a Democrat who embraced neoliberalism in his platform, was unique in a number of ways for a Democrat, particularly in the way he courted donors in his elections, which allowed him and the Democratic Party to win the 1992 election. In doing so, however, the Democrats had to shift their stance, particularly when it came to their history with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Particularly, Clinton chose to repeal Glass-Steagall, which prevented banks from taking risks on the financial market, yet Goldman Sachs had donated to Clinton’s campaigns and then went on, using the advantages of the repeal of Glass-Steagall to contribute to the 2008 financial collapse (later bailed out by Obama). This repeal was a contributor to the most recent recession. It can be noted here that Donald Trump in the 2016 election successfully tied Hilary Clinton to Goldman Sachs through Bill Clinton and gained a populist wave by these kinds of corporate ties and coining the phrase “Crooked Hilary,” but I digress.

Bill Clinton began the slide of the Democrats to the right and gradually bumped Republicans farther as well as to separate themselves from the Democrats. The real highlights came during the Obama administration, when he took $755,057 from Citigroup, as WikiLeaks pointed out, and before the campaign, that same group came to the Obama campaign with a list of preferred candidates. The email revealed by WikiLeaks was sent to Podesta a month before he was named the chairman of President-Elect Obama’s transition team titled “Lists.” Most of the people on the list were put into Cabinet positions. During the Obama years, the candidate for change ended up bailing out many organizations and prosecuting none of the bankers despite groups like Goldman Sachs using fraud as a business model.

Barack Obama even dragged the party farther right with the healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act, or "ObamaCare," which was based on Nixon’s healthcare plan based around the individual mandate, despite in 2003 stating that he was for a single-payer based system the rest of the developed nations on the planet have. Instead, during his first term, drawing legislation from Nixon and Romneycare in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party under Obama decided that an individual mandate was best claiming that they wanted to bring in Republican support despite having a filibuster-proof Congress at the time.

Despite using a Republican plan, the Affordable Care Act did not get a single Republican vote. The Republican Party, now being faced with their own plan, were pushed even farther to the right, and that could be seen with the development of the Tea Party, which pushed against the Affordable Care Act and other "liberal" ideas such as environmental regulations, despite Nixon forming the Environmental Protection Agency and the agency being mostly run by conservative leaders, with only Carter, Clinton, and Obama picking Democrats for the head of the agency (yet it could even be argued that under Democratic leadership incidents like the Flint Water Crisis still occurred). During this time, the Citizens United vs FEC came out. However, the damage was already done by the Bellotti decision. The main takeaway from Citizens United is that Political Action Committees, so long as they announce themselves as "interest groups," it is legal for them to spend an indefinite amount of money on the candidate of their choice. This allowed the development of Super PACs that are starting to show real impacts on elections and will continue to impact elections in massive ways.

Sadly, with both parties seemingly only having a vested interest in a pro-corporate agenda, that is at odds with the average American. Many people have begun to fight back in the only way they know how, and that is at the ballot. “He [Trump] is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for,” as Michael Moore put it in his documentary, Michael Moore in Trumpland. Michael Moore goes on to say that corporate America hated Trump and that was going to be the reason Donald Trump would be elected president, correctly, despite polling saying Clinton would win (both were correct—Clinton did get the popular vote, but the rust belt went for Trump). Similarly, Noam Chomsky highlighted that before the Democratic National Convention, Bernie Sanders had upturned the establishment in the Democratic Party and would have probably been the party’s nominee if it weren’t for the "shenanigans." Both Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, who both, to the chagrin of many news outlets, correctly saw Trump as hitting the Democratic firewall in the rust belt.

A Change in Tides?

Trump, however, has ended up not being the candidate many expected, particularly when, after connecting Clinton to Goldman Sachs, going ahead and appointing Gary Cohn—Goldman Sachs president—as the chair of Trump’s National Economic Council.

Now with Donald Trump in charge, both parties have started to see fractures starting to form. Neoconservatives in the Republican Party are at odds with Tea Party groups. There is even a Republican, Robb Ryerse, trying to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Womack. Ryerse is running on getting big money out of the system and is endorsed by Brand New Congress, a grassroots group started by former Bernie Sanders staffers to encourage new individuals to run for Congress and is focused on small money donors.

Likewise, Justice Democrats is looking to primary Democrats across the country by running on one major platform, pass a constitutional amendment to put an end to big money donations in United States elections. Wolf-PAC is taking a similar route except going state by state and politician by politician, having gotten five state legislatures to ban money in politics within the states’ constitutions.

Many Americans know that their government is bought and sold, which has led to the rise of populism seen in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s rise in the United States. With both parties putting forward policies that do not take the proper temperature of the country and the blatant auction of congressional votes, it is no surprise that the United States became a "flawed democracy" in 2017 by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

This has been a steady trend down ever since the United States began extending First Amendment protections to corporations and allowed for money to be equated to speech. The current system as is only represents the powerful, the wealthy, and the elite. It is up to “We the people” to change this system, and while as is the arguments that money are speech are well protected by Supreme Court precedents and the First Amendment, Americans can overturn that with a Constitutional Amendment and start to protect their own interests.

While many were upset by the 2016 election, the potential upside is that some are starting to see what has happened to this country since the Federal Election Campaign Act was established in 1971 and perhaps with all the movement now taking place with almost daily protests in Washington DC, it may just be possible to take the United States back from the Plutocracy it is becoming without having to "storm the Bastille."

As Plutarch stated, “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread to the law courts, and then to the army, and finally, the Republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.” However, with so many mobilizing at once, and with the rest of the world’s eyes on us, there is a change that the United States, with a fire it her belly, can end the auctioning off of the government. While the origins of money in politics were probably not maligned, it is clear the damage that has happened.

But I leave it to you, the reader, to decide.


Alexander Hilton

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Alexander Hilton
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