America’s Oligarchy

Years ago, political candidates ran on ideas, driven by the enthusiasm of voters who wanted to change the world and make it a better place. Today, money is king.

As a conservative who believes in the power of the people, this sickens me. I understand that campaigns need money, and that the world is becoming more expensive every day. What I don’t understand is how our system can justify spending billions of dollars on a single presidential race while homeless veterans sleep underneath bridges in the dead of winter.

Between 1998 and 2006, approximately $14 billion was spent on presidential and congressional elections. In 2008, 2010, and 2012, candidates and outside groups spent a combined $15.2 billion. In effect, the problem is getting worse: we spent 9% more in about half the time.

Frankly, I think it’s a shame men like Sheldon Adelson think spending $150 million on presidential elections is the best use of their money. There are millions of people mired in poverty throughout the world. Wouldn’t their 7-digit donations be better spent on ending homelessness or fighting human trafficking? Don’t get me wrong: civic engagement is critical, and monetary donations laudable. But billions of dollars? I don’t think so.

Massive checks also give private individuals undue political influence. Don’t think Adelson’s million-dollar donations make Republicans think twice when faced with anti-gambling bills? Think again. Campaign contributions naturally effect our representatives’ decisions, and when they drown out the people’s voice, something has to change.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the amount of money required to run a successful campaign also scares away potential candidates. Name recognition is key, especially in brutal Republican primaries: if voters don’t know you, and you don’t have the means to make sure they do, victory is impossible. Unfortunately, most people don’t have that money, and thus, cannot run.

The combined forces of waste, undue influence, and ‘candidate elimination’ disgust me. Why must we spend so much money on these races? Is it because our candidates are so bad they need millions to cover up their faults? I wish we could return to the days when campaigns were fought on ideas, not fundraising power, and run by real people who wanted real change.

Fortunately, we can. How? A constitutional amendment.

The courts have already spoken on this issue. In Buckley vs. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court wrongly decided that spending money was a form of free speech protected by the constitution. Thus, it struck down several sections of the amended Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which “limited expenditures by candidates and associated committees” and “candidate expenditures from personal funds.” I say ‘wrongly decided’ because Article I, Section 4 of the constitution clearly gives Congress the right to regulate elections:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

By my estimation, because of the role money plays, it must be considered part of the electoral process, and therefore a factor in the ‘manner’ of elections — that is, the way in which they are carried out. In sum, the decision was ludicrous.

Regardless, the court has spoken, and laws limiting how much a money a candidate may spend will not stand. The solution to this problem, then, lies not in simple legislation but rather a constitutional amendment. This amendment need only do one thing: give Congress the explicit power to limit campaign spending. The House and Senate can handle the details.

To some extent, any limit on contributions will engender inequality: there will always be people who can give the maximum and those who cannot. However, we can at least minimize the problem.

It’s time to limit money’s effect on democracy. We must return to the days of old, in which campaigns were won by the better man rather than the bigger spender. Did these ‘days’ ever really exist? Perhaps not, but it is incumbent on us to make them a reality.