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Any doubts about the determination of an activist United States Supreme Court to rewrite election rules so that the dollar matters more than the vote were removed Wednesday, when the decision of the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was decided in favor of the dollar.
The same court that in 2010, with its Citizens United v. FEC decision, cleared the way for corporations to spend as freely as they choose to buy elections has now effectively eliminated the ability of the American people and their elected representatives to establish meaningful limits on direct donations by millionaires and billionaires to campaigns.
The Citizens United ruling, coming after many previous judicial assaults on campaign finance rules and regulations, was a disaster for democracy. But it left in place at least some constraints on the campaign donors. Key among these was a limitation on the ability of a wealthy individual to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 total in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties.
With the ruling in the McCutcheon case—where the court was actively encouraged to intervene on behalf of big-money politics by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)—a 5-4 court majority (signing on to various opinions) has ruled that caps on the total amount of money an individual donor can give to political candidates, parties and political action committees are unconstitutional.
The think-tank Demos says the high court’s ruling has “overturned nearly 40 years of campaign finance law,” which is certainly true. But it does much more than that. By going to the next extreme when it comes to questions of money in politics, the court has opted for full-on plutocracy—and it is unimaginable that the five justices who make up the court majority on these issues will stop here.
The majority has made its political intent entirely clear. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito in backing a finding that limits on the total amount of money that wealthy donors—such as the billionaire Koch Brothers or casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—could give do not prevent corruption. Justice Clarence Thomas went even further, writing an opinion that all limits on political contributions are unconstitutional. The extreme stance of Thomas—which would overturn the high court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld basic contribution limits—may signal the next frontier for the court.
But the McCutcheon ruling will be more than sufficient for the big-money interests that worried that their ability to buy elections was hindered by what remained of campaign finance law.
“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
The decision, while not unexpected considering the court’s track record, horrified clean-government and campaign-finance reform activists.
“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights. The Supreme Court today holds that the purported right of a few hundred super-rich individuals to spend outrageously large sums on campaign contributions outweighs the national interest in political equality and a government free of corruption,” said Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “In practical terms, the decision means that one individual can write a single check for $5.9 million to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees. Even after Citizens United, this case is absolutely stunning. It is sure to go down as one of the worst decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.”
Public Citizen and other reform groups associated with the Money Out/Voters In movement have organized a national “rapid response” to the McCutcheon ruling. Thousands of Americans rallied this week in cities across the country to protest the decision—and to call for a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of citizens to organize free and fair elections.
“We, the People insist that our government and our country remain of, by and for the people—all the people, not just those few who have amassed billions in wealth,” says Weissman. “A vibrant movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and reclaim our democracy has emerged since the 2010 issuance of that fateful decision. The demonstrations today—unprecedented as a same-day response to a Supreme Court decision—are just the latest manifestation of how that movement is now exploding across the country.”
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation.