Whether you like him or hate him, the president’s reign is winding down. Come January 20, 2017, Obama will transfer power to his successor.
That person—whoever he or she will be—will likely have endured a battle of epic proportions against his or her opponent(s). But in the end, whoever wins, the American people will have spoken, choosing their new leader, the 45th president of the United States.
At least, that’s how the fairy tale goes.
We’ve all heard the phrase “money talks,” and now—thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010—that phrase has perverted the American political process to the point where it feels silly to even call it Democracy any more.
In that infamous case, America’s top justices ruled that corporations, non-profit organizations, and other groups are “individuals”—despite the fact that they can’t read, write, or even speak. Thanks to protections from the 1st Amendment—i.e., the right to free speech—the justices ruled that there wasn’t any limit to the amount of money these institutions could contribute to candidates during the election season.
This is the reason why we’ve all heard of the Koch brothers. Though their clan consists of four brothers and their father, for our purposes the phrase “Koch brothers” refers to David and Charles Koch, the two uber-rich philanthropists who have a penchant for funneling unimaginable sums of money into so-called “libertarian” causes (read: GOP interests).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the left’s darlings of the Court, went as far as saying the Citizens United decision—and the super political action committees (PACs) that resulted from it—was the worst ruling the court made since she became a part of it. Why? Thanks to the Citizens United ruling, the Koch brothers (and their ilk) are now kingmakers, holding the all-important purse strings firmly enough that they may indeed be powerful enough to influence who gets the GOP nod for the presidency.
Before we go on, let’s make something clear: I understand perfectly well that Citizens United also opened the door to special interests that align a bit better with my own beliefs. As surely as Conservative business moguls have stepped up to spill their generousness into GOP coffers, liberal billionaires have stepped up to contribute to progressive causes. That sits a little better with me than the alternative, but the truth is that money should have no foothold in American politics—no matter which side of the aisle you happen to sit on.
In other words, conflicts of interest are conflicts of interest—no matter how righteous your intentions.
Citizens United, Explained
In both the primary and general election season, regular citizens—folks like you and me—are able to donate up to $2,700 to a political candidate’s campaign. But what about Super PACs? I’m glad you asked. These organizations are allowed to collect unlimited sums of money and then subsequently use it to “endorse” whichever candidate the group ultimately decides to get behind.
A little confused? Let’s take a look at Carly Fiorina’s campaign. Fiorina, you may have heard, is the sole woman in the crowded circus tent that is the GOP field of candidates. Fiorina, the ex-CEO of HP, was polling abysmally at under one percent before her moment in the spotlight following the GOP’s kids’ table debate. You might think that such low numbers would spell the end of her campaign, but you’d be wrong.
But then take a look at this super PAC website. The group—named Carly for America—claims that it is “an independent expenditure committee” that is “not authorized or coordinated with any federal candidate or candidate’s committee.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which presidential campaign the PAC endorses. And thanks to Citizens United, what the group is doing is perfectly legal.
If money equals speech, we’ve not heard the last from Team Fiorina. One donor has given her PAC at least $1 million. So whoever that rich person is, he or she happens to love the failed former CEO of HP. And because that person is rich, he or she will do their damnedest to make sure that more of America does, too.
Oligarchs, Meet America’s Dynasties
You know that really rich dude seeking the GOP nomination? No, not that one, the other one.
I’m talking about “Jeb!”, of the clan that needs no introduction. Move aside, Carly. Jeb is currently dominating the super PAC sweepstakes. Some say his Right to Rise USA super PAC has already amassed a war chest towering higher than $100 million (he also has locked up 24 donors who have each given him more than $1 million—by far the most of any candidate). And the election’s not for another year-and-a-half.
If you take a look at Right to Rise’s donor list, you’ll see that Jeb!’s already secured the contributions of two former presidents: his father and his brother, to the tune of $125,000 and $95,000, respectively, at the time of this writing. And that’s in addition to scores of other contributions from the Bush family’s connected network of political donors.
There’s nothing preventing Jeb! Bush from becoming president. (There’s nothing preventing Hillary Clinton from doing the same, either.) But it doesn’t necessarily leave a good taste in your mouth, to say the least, when you have two former presidents significantly bankrolling the campaign of one of their family members, to the tune of way much more money than average citizens can afford.
Tell me again about this “for the people” government we’re supposed to have.
Is Anyone Interested In Fixing This?
It would be foolish to paint all corporations—or all business owners—with the same brush. But it certainly says something about American culture that so many of our wealthiest citizens prefer to dump their money into political action committees instead of using it to, for example, improve conditions for their workers. America is, for better and worse, the leader of the free world; our example should spark changes across the globe. So why aren’t we doing more?
It’s clear that we need to get money out of politics—it’s really that simple. And in case you were wondering, there’s exactly one 2016 presidential candidate who’s not just discussing the problem, but also suggesting common-sense solutions for correcting it.
That candidate is Bernie Sanders. Sanders is the longest-serving independent in the history of the U.S. congress. He tends to win his elections by a landslide, and is recognized as one of the most productive members of Congress currently serving.
His solution is almost shockingly simple: overturn Citizens United and fund elections publically. One idea he floated recently is to give each registered voter $100 to spend on the candidate of their choosing. That’s it. No other money enters the system, and real, flesh-and-blood Americans finally get to steer the course of events rather than monolithic, multinational corporations and their aristocratic owners.
It should be noted, too, that Sanders is pointedly refusing to solicit donations from billionaires. His website proudly reads: “Paid for by the people (not by billionaires!),” and so far he’s sticking to his guns on that promise.
Sanders’ is the only solution that makes any sense, and here’s why: the last time someone took you out to dinner and paid for your meal, you probably felt indebted to them. You probably felt as though you owed them a favor. So when a newly-minted U.S. president owes a bunch of billionaires millions of dollars each, what wouldn’t they do to close out their tab? If you want to find out, cast your vote for the GOP next November.
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