Today’s the big day! Citizens will participate in our greatest civic duty—and be accessories to the most excessive and expensive campaigns in history. So here’s my prediction for the evening: a loss for the common man.
American politics is perpetually caught in a catch-22 between irrelevance and inefficacy. More than 50 years ago in the novel “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller presciently painted the saga of war-profiteering Milo Minderbinder, whose caricature of the American dream and crony capitalism now seems disturbingly nonfictional.
At first, the soldiers of Pianosa tolerate Milo’s scheming syndicate as he manipulates his connections with government officials, hands massaged with miniscule shares, to amass a fortune. But the allure of money corrupts Milo’s morals: He markets morphine, leaving soldiers to die in excruciating pain, and accepts a German bribe to bomb his own base.
Milo’s syndicate is the perfect allegory for the stranglehold the current regime of uncontrolled independent expenditures has taken on the political process in this post-Citizens United era. An insidious torrent of unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions has been tolerated. As long as our government is not of the people, by the people, but for special interests, it will continue to distort political responsiveness and corrupt our institutions.
This election season will have an estimated total cost of $6 billion and has seen independent expenditures on House and Senate races explode tenfold from the previous election’s total of $46 million to an estimated $445 million. The political operatives managing the super PACs and shadowy “nonprofits” are missionaries from the same cult of Milo, peddling an unholy trinity of equations: money is speech, corporations are people, and bribery is merely corruption.
Money is not speech. Speech is speech. The corrupting cascade of money emptied into campaign coffers this election season does not come from some altruistic desire for an elevation of political rhetoric—these massive, secret contributions actually fund deliberate and disingenuous misinformation campaigns, like the intentional misquoting of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line or unfair Democratic attacks on Bain Capital.
Blind adherence to a fallacious money-speech equivalence is myopic. Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits through any legal means possible—and purchasing our government has proven massively lucrative. Consider the $282 million spent lobbying for the passage of the American Jobs Creation Act, which eventually saved corporations a total of $88.6 billion in taxes: a 22,000 percent (yes, three zeroes) return. Money pads the pockets of politicians’ reelection campaigns, addicts our representatives and senators, and corrupts regulation by building revolving doors in ways that true speech simply does not.
Just as money is not speech, corporations and unions are not people. People are people. After all, the preamble to the Constitution stated that it is written by and for “We the People” not “We the Multinational Corporation.” Corporations and unions are legal constructs created by us that oscillate freely in and out of existence with no desire for life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Corporations may not be immoral, but they are certainly amoral. It makes little sense to equate, in the eyes of the Constitution, an amoral, profit-maximizing institution with a sentient human being. Even the conservative former Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist has cautioned that to “ascribe to such artificial entities an ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ [for constitutional purposes] is to confuse metaphor with reality.”
Legalized bribery is not mere corruption. Bribery is bribery. The large donors whose dollars crowd out the voices of the electorate rationalize this bribery masquerading as free speech by asserting that there are no quid pro quo exchanges in campaign donations. But this convenient defense is premised on a naïve conception of infallible human nature. Our politicians are still beholden to the people paying for their careers, regardless of whether they are gifted a million dollars worth of ads or a million-dollar yacht. These payments are made with the expectation of future rewards.
The transaction is essentially a legalized bribe, despite elaborate legal contortions that suggest otherwise. Large donors and corporate lobbyists commit huge sums of money to influence, water down, or even kill unwanted legislation and promote a weak governance that distorts the will of the electorate, as evidenced by attacks on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the persistence of needless subsidies to oil companies.
"In a democracy, the government is the people," Milo explains later in “Catch-22.” "We're people, aren't we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman.”
Regardless of whom America elects today, that sure seems like the road we’re headed on.
Idrees Kahloon ’16 lives in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.