A Big Stuff Moment

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing,” Winston Churchill famously quipped, “after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” If, like me, you found solace in that sentiment as our politicians exhausted one campaign season and fiscal crisis after another, read on: Two of America’s most prominent journalists have peeled back these farcical news stories to reveal dire structural problems in our democracy. Despite some bleak findings, they believe that we can still “do the right thing.” I agree, but don’t take my word for it. A growing number of Americans have already taken that sagacious Brit’s advice to heart.

You might reach different, grimmer conclusions after reading the first few pages of John Nichols’s and Robert McChesney’s new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. As the title suggests, Nichols and McChesney find problems much graver than the debt-ceiling showdown or ongoing glitches with healthcare.gov. “The United States,” they write, “is in a period of crisis…. We have a system that is now defined more by one dollar, one vote than by one person, one vote. We live in a society where a small number of fabulously wealthy individuals and giant corporations control most of the dollars—and by extension have most of the political power.”

How exactly did we reach this “crisis”? Nichols and McChesney explore multiple causes, ranging from gerrymandering to the decline of independent journalism. However, they place much of the blame on a series of Supreme Court decisions, including the much-debated 2010 case, FEC v. Citizens United, which struck down legal restrictions on the amounts of money that organizations could spend to express their political views. Within months of Citizens United, organizations devoted to this exact purpose—“super PACs”—had emerged in force. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, 1,310 of these groups, none officially affiliated with any particular candidate, lavished over $609 million on the 2012 election cycle—mostly on ads supporting or defaming a particular candidate. They had plenty of company: Vocal individuals, shadowy “non-profits,” and direct campaign contributors all poured money into last year’s elections, with varying degrees of accountability and transparency. By the time Americans lined up to vote on November 6, 2012, these groups had spent over $10 billion to sway their decisions.

According to one of the politicians elected that day, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), those groups had every right to do so. Explaining his logic via Skype to a packed audience of UChicago students, he reminded us that “ever since the founding, money has been essential to free speech. If the government takes away your ability to spend freely to promote your views, your ‘free speech’ is limited to standing on top of a soapbox at a street corner, shouting at the top of your lungs.” Campaign finance reform, he believes, would only secure “incumbents who already have fundraising mechanisms in place.”

His points are convincing. How can leaders win elections with well-funded political speech, swear to uphold a Constitution that enshrines political speech, then limit that speech to the proverbial soapboxes and street corners? And even if that speech takes the form of slick, misleading attack ads, can’t we trust the American voter, alone in the polling booth, to look beyond the clamor and make a fair, rational decision? Shortly after Citizens United, Chicago Law Professor Todd Henderson asserted that the American system puts faith “in our citizens’ abilities to know right from wrong, to look beyond rhetoric for substance, and to be able to weigh competing claims of truth.” Surely this sentiment, bolstered by rulings from the highest court and a boisterous $10 billion marketplace of “competing claims of truth,” proves that American democracy is alive and well.

Or is it? Each year, The Economist publishes a Democracy Index of 167 nations. In 2012, the United States eked out an 8.11, below 20 other countries and barely above the 8.0 separating “full democracies” from “flawed democracies.” Many higher-scoring nations, such as Norway and Britain, ban paid political advertising altogether. Contrast that approach with the free, First Amendment-approved speech endured by former West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw. Last year, after McGraw’s bold consumer protection laws drew the ire of conservatives, right-wing “charities” from outside the state spent over $2 million on TV ads attacking the attorney general. McGraw, the five-term incumbent with a supposedly robust fundraising network, narrowly lost to Republican Patrick Morrisey—a Washington, DC lawyer who gained his license to practice law in West Virginia a mere four days before beginning his campaign. That, according to Nichols and McChesney, is Dollarocracy in action.

When you’re a first-year in college poised to inherit this system, it’s easy to get depressed. Yet both Dollarocracy authors brought a healthy dose of optimism to the Global Voices Lecture Series at the University of Chicago’s International House on October 17. America, they reminded us, has reached these moments of crisis before, and improved accordingly—not once or twice, but twenty-seven times. When faced with “Robber Barons” and “Money Power” in the early 1900s, we enacted a series of constitutional amendments that established the first income tax, allowed for direct election of US Senators, and granted women the right to vote. “When our system reaches a moment of crisis,” McChesney explained, “big stuff happens. John and I think that we’re on the cusp of a big stuff moment.”

A surprising number of Americans agree. On November 6, 2012, Coloradans voted overwhelmingly in support of a proposal for a campaign-finance amendment to the Constitution, while putting their support behind Obama. Farther north, Montanans gave their state’s three electoral votes to Romney, yet also voted overwhelmingly for a campaign-finance amendment. These aren’t isolated gestures. As Nichols and McChesney researched, they found groups like Common Cause, Move to Amend, Public Citizen and Free Speech For People that advocate reforms—not mere legislative reforms, but constitutional amendments—to overturn Citizens United, secure the right to vote, abolish the electoral college, and put an end to gerrymandering. These amendments, they believe, are the key to reviving America from its current dollarocracy.

Long shots? Absolutely, but I linked this article to their websites all the same, because these long shots are worth supporting. These organizations have taken on a daunting task, largely for the sake of our generation, the 21.8 million American college students who, though lacking the financial muscle of Patrick Morrisey’s backers or the Koch brothers, recently gained the right to vote. None of us want to exercise that right in a system “defined more by one dollar, one vote than by one person, one vote,” one that unseats successful incumbents with well-connected outsiders and millions of dollars, and that is fast approaching “flawed democracy” status.

Now, the question stands: Do we want to inherit this system? Or, now that the US has exhausted “all the alternatives,” is it time to prove Churchill right and “do the right thing” once again?

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