Reclaiming Our Republic
Why a constitutional amendment is needed to save American democracy
We have lost our republic. Congress, once a bastion of responsive democracy, is incoherent, coopted, and corrupted by the deluge of campaign finance from a small fraction of the super wealthy, unions, and corporations. Beholden to insidious special interests, our politicians now represent contributors rather than constituents.
“We’ve got a very unstable government because a tiny slice of the one percent fund elections,” said Lawrence L. Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “That means that a tiny fraction of the tiny slice is enough to create influence to block substantial reform.”
The corruption of our vital institutions stemming from dependence on donors is widespread. It has metastasized to every conceivable area of public policy, from healthcare to defense to financial regulation. It is a critical problem in the country that, unless remedied, will stall progress in governance.
The campaign finance problem ought to be decidedly bipartisan. Who, on either side of the aisle, can justify billions of dollars in subsidies to enormously profitable oil companies? Or that six of the 400 wealthiest Americans paid no federal income tax?
The lightning rod of the campaign finance movement is the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions were entitled to unlimited independent political expenditures under the First Amendment. The ruling allowed for the creation of tax-exempt “social welfare” groups that can accept unlimited amounts but are not required to disclose donors. A ruling involving a nonprofit organization’s right to distribute a documentary was grossly extrapolated to the formation of these super PACs: “independent” entities that accept unlimited campaign donations from anyone: citizen, union, corporation, or foreign national.
“Multinational corporations decided to purchase the U.S. government. And they did so systematically, completely, and thoroughly. Citizens United was icing on the cake,” said Cenk K. Uygur, host of the progressive internet show The Young Turks.
But the right of the donor faction to devour American democracy is not universally reprimanded. “I think [Citizens United] liberated free speech. What you call a torrent of money, I call a torrent of speech. The more speech there is, the better,” said Nick Dranias, analyst at the Goldwater Institute.
But the notion of First Amendment rights through corporate personhood, promoted by the 1976 Supreme Court ruling Buckley v. Valeo, is as ludicrous as it is dismaying. Because corporations are driven by a fiduciary responsibility to increase profits for shareholders, the “speech” of corporations must always be aligned with this desire—corporate “persons” are incapable of humanity. Corporations neither live, love, nor die. Corporations aren’t endowed by their creator with inalienable rights because we, human beings, are the actual creators of such legal fictions.
“I don’t disagree that many of our institutions have been corrupted,” said Dranias. But Dranias proposes a problematic solution. “The root cause was that we just gave too much power to [regulatory agencies].” Instead, campaign finance is “best regulated in a decentralized fashion: through lawsuits, through each state figuring out what works best.”
Absent the shred of regulation that the FEC has over current elections, the already porous line between huge donors and politicians would dissolve into quid pro quo exchanges of money for commanding influence. Powerless to oppose the powers that be, the politician who represents constituents over the objections of donors would be quickly batted away under brutal salvos of opposing money. “You may have a disaster here and there,” Dranias later conceded. He can say that again.
Instead of resignedly firing our regulatory agencies, we must reverse our republic’s accelerating descent to a plutocracy. A constitutional amendment capping election donations, advocated by both Uygur and Lessig, is the most permanent prescription for the country’s ills.
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are proposed through either Congress or an Article V convention called by state legislatures. Going the Congressional route “is very unlikely because Congress depends on the system as it is to create the incentives they want when they leave,” said Lessig. Relying on a complacent Congress for substantive change is impossible in a time when commonsense compromise no longer exists.
Many people get queasy at the thought of a “runaway” Article V convention, where organizers draft a radical revision of the Constitution. “I think Congress has the power to restrict the scope of the constitutional convention because if the constitutional convention exceeded the scope that Congress had set, then the fact that they had broken the rules would in most cases be fatal to any proposals that they advance,” said Lessig.
The problems of undue influence and institutional corruption through ineffective campaign finance law are the utmost threat to our democracy. The consensus among experts is clear: politicians are bought, and the system is broken. Luckily, the framers of the Constitution placed one weapon in the arsenal of the citizen to circumvent corrupted internal authorities and reform the system from the outside.
A constitutional amendment prohibiting corrupt money is critical. Dig in for an arduous campaign: it is time for us to recapture our lost republic.
Idrees Kahloon ’16 lives in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.