In October 1902, in the midst of a months-long strike by the United Mine Workers Union, the coal operators’ representative, George Baer, flatly refused to meet with the UMW’s president, John Mitchell. Baer said that Mitchell was “only a common coal-miner, who worked with his hands for 15 years, and was now a labor agitator.”
In response to a plea for negotiation, Baer replied that “the rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.” One northern paper wrote in response that “the doctrine of the divine right of kings was bad enough, but not so intolerable as the doctrine of the divine right of plutocrats.”
That the men who controlled the “property interests of the country” believed precisely as Baer is beyond dispute. Even the greatest reformer of the era — then President, Theodore Roosevelt — accepted hundreds of thousands of early 1900′s dollars from banks, railroads and manufacturers (although a check for $100,000 from Standard Oil was returned as simply beyond the pale). Not much has changed since the “Progressive Era” on the critical issue of campaign finances. Despite noble attempts, we have never been able to come to grips with the overarching issue: how to limit the power of wealth from controlling our political system?
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has recently noted some alarming facts, including (1) that the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans combined; and (2) that the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets. Reich argues a most disturbing point — that great concentrations of wealth are readily compounded through politics, rigging the game in favor of the wealthy, and against everyone else.
Congressional attempts to end at least the appearance of “rigging the game”—most recently through the Dodd-Frank act — have now met two emasculating decisions by the Supreme Court, both by the same 5-4 majorities. In 2010, in Citizens United, the majority removed caps on the amount of money that corporations and unions can spend influencing elections. Predictably, the 2012 elections were flooded with the greatest amount of corporate cash in history.
On April 2, in McCutheons v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court did not address the amount of money an individual can contribute to a single federal candidate (currently $2,600). Instead, McCutheons eliminated the aggregate cap on the total amount any individual can donate to candidates and party fundraising committees during any two-year election season. For 2013 and 2014, that aggregate limit was $123,000. Truthout’s Michael Ludwig reports that this limit was so high that only several hundred donors reached it in the last election cycle. Obviously, fewer still will reach the new “limit,” now estimated at $3.6 million per donor.
Chief Justice John Roberts, following the Citizens United dicta that corporations are people and money is speech, identified the “sole” legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign contributions—corruption, or the appearance of corruption. But the governmental interest is, in the majority’s view, limited to “quid pro quo” corruption — direct and provable acts of bribery. Roberts rejected the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence or access” to elected officials or political parties. He justified the majority’s position on the basis that “disclosure requirements deters actual [not the appearance of] impropriety….by exposing contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity.”
The Roberts majority apparently believes that the Koch brothers, George Soros and Sheldon Alderson will now shy away from massive political investment because they wish to remain anonymous.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority, argued that political corruption is much more than buying a specific result from a specific legislator. He points to the lessons of our political history: that where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. He dismissed the majority’s limited definition of “quid pro quo” corruption as the only proper concern: “Our cases have firmly established that Congress’ legitimate interest extends beyond presenting simply cash-for-votes corruption to curbing undue influence in an officeholder’s judgment, and the appearance of such influence.”
We agree with Breyer and the McCutheons minority. The Citizens United/McCutheons majorities have ignored our history of political corruption, starting well before the days that the “robber barons” would have their agents deposit sacks of cash on the desks of members of Congress. Reich recalls Justice Louis Brandeis’ memorable statement that “we can have a democracy, or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few…but we cannot have both.”
The Citizens United and McCutheons majorities have shown a clear preference for the second, lamentable alternative suggested by Brandeis. The road to a renewed American Plutocracy has been widened and re-paved by these five justices.