Money and Politicians, Plus Judges

ThinkProgress reports that the Supreme Court sensibly ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that a state can restrict lawyers’ campaign contributions to judges. Chief Justice Roberts explained why:

States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections, because the role of judges differs from the role of politicians. Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such “responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.” The same is not true of judges. In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. A judge instead must “observe the utmost fairness,” striving to be “perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or control him but God and his conscience.” As in White, therefore, our precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.

So a majority of the Court agreed that it’s important for judges not to be influenced by campaign contributions, because judges are expected to serve the public good. Does that mean it’s acceptable for politicians to be influenced by campaign contributions, since they’re expected to serve the interests of whoever gives them money?

The obvious problem with Roberts’s explanation is that politicians should serve the public good as much as judges. A President is supposed to serve the national interest. Senators are supposed to serve the national interest and the interests of their particular states. Politicians are only supposed to do little favors for people who give them money. Otherwise, we’d say the politicians were for sale!

After all, we vote anonymously so that nobody, not even the candidates, know who we voted for. That makes sense, because how a particular person voted shouldn’t matter to a politician who represents “the people”.

But doesn’t that suggest that campaign contributions (assuming they’re legal at all) should be anonymous too? Politicians shouldn’t know who gave them money or spent money on their behalf, because they’re not supposed to be influenced by such things. They’re supposed to make their decisions on the merits, not reward the rich people or groups who paid for their campaigns. Nor should politicians be able to extort contributions by threatening anyone.

Anonymous campaign funding was the subject of a 2004 book called “Voting With Dollars” written by two law professors. They argued that all voters should be given government-financed “gift cards” that could only be used to finance presidential campaigns. Last year, two political scientists called for making all campaign contributions anonymous, even those made by major donors:

Indeed, if we think about all the ways transparency helps contributors and candidates put pressure upon each other, it is clear that reporting contributions can make matters worse. Suppose, then, that we turned out the lights? What if we let Adelson and Shaun McCutcheon spend their money on politics but not take credit for their “generosity”? What if we made all campaign contributions and independent expenditures anonymous — and made sure they stayed anonymous?

I don’t know if it’s possible to design a system that would guarantee anonymity. If people contributed to a general fund from which payments were made to their candidates of choice, it would be difficult for the contributors to see that they’d made a specific contribution to a particular candidate without their having the ability to share that information with the candidate in question. Maybe it would be enough to make it illegal to communicate the source of donations or “independent” spending, as the political science professors suggest.  

In addition to reducing the number of favors politicians did for their major contributors, anonymity would theoretically reduce the amount of money in politics too. Presumably, some of the wealthy would limit their spending if they couldn’t expect something in return. Of course, even anonymous contributions won’t solve the Big Money problem. Fixing that will require a majority on the Supreme Court that doesn’t equate unlimited political spending with free speech.

Republicans on Supreme Court Make Plutocracy Official

In their latest effort to make America’s status as an oligarchy (sub-class plutocracy) official, the five Republicans on the Supreme Court have now decided that wealthy people will be able to give as much money as they want to political parties and groups of candidates. According to the New York Times, the Republicans ruled that:

Overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

So, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars every two years to the political party of their choice, without going to the trouble of setting up supposedly independent political action committees. In addition, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars directly to candidates every two years, so long as they don’t give any candidate more than $2600 for a single election.

The $2600-per-election limit wasn’t killed off today, but it will be eliminated as soon as the Republican justices gets their chance. That’s because the Republicans on the Court claim, in the Chief Justice’s words, that “there is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” And by “participate”, of course, the Court means “use one’s financial resources to elect and influence as many politicians as possible”.

It’s now official, therefore, that the most basic right in our democracy is no longer the right to vote, a right that should belong to rich and poor alike. Now the most basic right is to “participate”. Anatole France once pointed out that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” In the same way, the law in the United States now allows rich and poor alike to give millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice and buy as much political advertising as possible, all in the name of freedom of speech.

Treat money as speech, discourage low-income voters from voting (as Republican politicians are doing in every state they control), and do whatever possible to encourage financial inequality (let’s get rid of the death tax!). It’s an amazingly clear agenda. Replace government of the people with government of the few and make sure the few are the rich!