Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, coequal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process.
Recently, the Supreme Court’s five-member majority declared it’s unconstitutional to limit the aggregate amount an individual can give to candidates, political parties and political action committees. Campaign contributions amplify free speech, these justices maintain, and campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment: Any limit on the ability of individuals to contribute to candidates is a restraint of free speech. The only legitimate cause for the government to step in is to fight blatant, obvious corruption; it should not act to limit access and influence by well-to-do donors. The result of this decision will almost certainly increase the impact of money on the political system.
The problem is, money doesn’t have to be handed over in an envelope filled with $100 bills to be harmful. The Supreme Court decision seems to be insensitive to what money is doing to the political system.
Big money is here to stay in politics. Those of us who wish it were otherwise have lost that argument — at least for the near term.
But we weren’t mistaken about the impact of free-flowing campaign cash on the system. Politicians need large sums of money to run for office, and they spend a lot of time raising it. They are keenly attuned to generous donors. Inevitably, this gives more political influence to the relative handful of wealthy donors (only a few thousand at best) who choose to “invest” in politics and often, though not invariably, get what they want. The influence of voters without the financial means to command attention is diminished.