When I was a junior in high school my English teacher, Vivian Davenport, wrote a “Word for the Day” on the blackboard. Students were charged with defining the word and crafting a sentence using it correctly.
‘Oligarchy’ might well have been one of Ms. Davenport’s words: Definition – “a small group of people who together govern a nation or control an organization, often for their own purposes.” Sentence: America seems to be moving from a democracy to an oligarchy.
Ms. Davenport might well have written ‘plutocracy’ – governance by the wealthy class, or ‘autocracy’ – the unlimited political power of a single ruler, on the blackboard too. I doubt she ever asked us to define or use the word ‘democracy.’ She would have assumed we all understood that political system, given how frequently it was invoked to describe the merits of American life back in the post-war 1950s. Today I suspect she would add it to her list. In her quiet way, she would want us to understand what we stand perilously close to losing.
Let’s not be Pollyana about American democracy, though. As writer Tom Adams pointed out in a blog post on Reader Supported News a while back, the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t even appear in the constitution. John Adams warned his colleagues of the “tyranny of the majority,” and Alexander Hamilton believed that “the people should have as little to do as may be about the Government.”
The so-called founding fathers were, like the majority of our Congressional members today, wealthy, white, property-holding (and slave-owning) males who favored a system of government that protected their own financial interests. Then as now, chosen representatives did not represent the interest of the public. Rather, their priorities neglected society at large while serving the financial elite.
Nevertheless, despite their political motives and personal flaws, we like to believe that the nation’s architects understood their responsibility and their legacy as they crafted a future for the new country they were helping to build.
Would that we could say the same for our current Supreme Court. Instead we are left to wonder how in the world they could have done it again with their McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision hot on the heels of the Citizens United decision – opening the doors to a new America in which money talks while the one percent balks.
The Citizens United decision of 2010 cleared the way for corporations to spend freely to get their sympathizers elected. It virtually declared that corporations were people too, effectively eliminating limits on direct donations by the ultra-wealthy to political campaigns. As Common Dreams noted, “it was a disaster for democracy.”
Now, the Court’s shocking decision has removed virtually all remaining constraints on campaign donors, including one that limited the ability of wealthy individuals to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties. (The decision left the cap of $2,600 per election that an individual can give to any single federal candidate but removed the limit on the grand total that can be contributed to all federal candidates.)
This may be good news for right wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson but it spells disaster for the rest of us, having overturned decades of much needed campaign finance law.
As Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) put it, “It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules. Now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.” Baldwin
Welcome to the new America, where oligarchy rules and plutocrats reign.
Reform groups are organizing and demonstrating, petitions on social media are mounting and pundits (like me) are pounding the keyboards. But the fact remains that the highest court in the land has now made it possible for one rich guy to write a single check worth millions of dollars to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees, and the little guy be damned.
Is there even a word that captures how dangerous that is for America’s future, or a word for the day when democracy died?