Slowly chipping at democracy

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By DON VOWELL

We are witnessing the slow but steady suffocation of American democracy. The five Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices relentlessly shift our economic might toward those with extreme wealth and to giant corporations.  First they decided that corporations are people and now have ruled that money is speech.

The Constitution they claim to revere nowhere says a corporation is a person. Michael Walzer in his book Spheres of Justice says it clearly, “Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly: none of these required money payments; none of these are available at auction; they are simply guaranteed to every citizen… Quick access to large audiences is expensive, but that is another matter, not of freedom itself but of influence and power.”  All of us know this except the Supreme Court majority, accountable to none.

This zealous defense of our rights would be admirable if it extended to every American.  This court has limited the speech of demonstrators, whistle-blowers, and students.  This court has even allowed restrictions on the fundamental right to vote, as passed in Republican-led states, who have finally given up claiming they are protecting against the phantom problem of voter fraud—they now claim to seek “uniformity.”  This court is attentive mostly to the rights of the top one percent.

This is more than just the appearance of impropriety.  In 2006 about $70 million was spent on mid-term elections for federal candidates.  After the Citizens United decision, that amount more than tripled to $328 million in the 2010 mid-term elections.  Sheldon Adelson contributed $36.3 million in one election cycle.  As a percentage of income it would take 321,000 average American families to donate that amount.  Also in 2010, the top one quarter of one percent of all donors accounted for 90 percent of all campaign funds.  Giant corporations and the extremely wealthy are underwriting our elections. The passage of laws favoring them is not coincidental.

Until now, I have taken comfort in knowing that in spite of all that money it is still one man, one vote.  But now we are left to choose mainly from candidates able to attract large contributions from far distant benefactors.  A legislator, or even an aspiring legislator, must hesitate before taking a position that might jeopardize their source of funds, or worse, provoke the monied interests into funding their opponents. Between 30 and 70 percent of any legislator’s time in office is spent fundraising.  Money rules.

In the most recent decision Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so, too, does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag-burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”  At least he understands there is popular opposition, though unclear on the definition of speech.

The court majority apparently believes that a corporation’s right to say whatever it wants is indistinguishable from its right to spend whatever it wants on an election.  From the beginnings of modern corporations about a century ago, there have been laws and prohibitions against their contributing money to elections. No more.

The corrosive effect of all this is further degradation of how we see government. We begin to believe that our votes make no difference.  Appearance of impropriety does the same damage as documented impropriety.

Speech is ideas, opinions, debates,  cwhat we say and write.  Money just makes it all louder.  Most of us understand that if money is speech, we are mute.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.  He gets on his soapbox regularly in the Keizertimes.)

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