Money is speech and corporations are people. Well, at least that’s the tune that the Supreme Court has been singing for over a decade under Chief Justice John Roberts. In its most recent revival in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the court lifted the $123,200 cap on individual contributions over the course of an election season, ruling that this violated donors’ rights to free speech.
Unfortunately, this ruling’s significance lies not in its own impact on American politics, but in its seamless integration into a larger war on our nation’s campaign finance system. Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has been slowly destroying the campaign finance laws that worked to level the playing field between classes and interest groups. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court eliminated limits on campaign expenditures, priming the American electoral system for big-money players. Subsequent rulings upheld this decision in the early 2000s, when the Supreme Court decided to take up the issue of corporate speech rights through political advocacy expenditures. In a string of decisions, the Supreme Court granted corporations the right to use unlimited funds in order to advocate for or against ballot measures and fund political messages mentioning candidates as long as they did not give ballot-box instructions. Citizens United v. FEC rescinded this final restriction in 2010.
McCutcheon v. FEC, however, is the Supreme Court’s first large-scale assault on campaign finance laws regulating donations from individuals. And it certainly won’t be the last. Although few donors reach the $123,200 ceiling, the next logical step is lifting the single candidate cap, which prevents individuals from donating more than $5,200 to any one candidate. If this latter restriction is lifted, we will see wealthy individuals exercising even more political power, just as we have seen wealthy corporations exercising increased political power in the wake of Citizens United.
But, the question remains, why do we care? If corporate and wealthy donor interests line up with constituent interests, we may not. However, when private and public interests clash, public officials are charged with upholding the interests of their constituents. When the interests of the wealthy clash with those of the middle and lower class, public officials must find a way to address everyone’s needs. This becomes difficult if public officials rely on wealthy individuals and corporations for their campaign war chests. Candidates that vastly outspend their opponents are more likely to be elected. Politicians accept and even solicit big-money contributions to gain an edge over opponents. If private interests threaten to pull financial support for reelection or threaten to support the opposition, politicians have a vested interest in upholding the interests of their donors.
With the absence of large-scale public mobilization, middle- and lower-class citizens have little hope of having their interests heard without spending thousands on campaign contributions or lobbying efforts. Mark Gongloff of the Huffington Post aptly described the corrupt influence of money in politics with his assertion that “All people, corporate or human or otherwise, have a right to make our voices heard. It’s just that some of us don’t have $8 million per year to spend on it.”