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Rome and the Supreme Court

By David F. Clifton

“Of course, that never happens in our government today,” my professor quipped while discussing the role of corruption in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Many in the class laughed. We knew that, just as in the crumbling empire of the fifth century, the few, wealthy elites of this country exert an inordinate amount of influence on American politics.

And last week, the situation only got worse.

On the same day that my professor made his remark, two things happened that intensified the comment’s horrifying irony. The Supreme Court struck down limitations on total campaign contributions, and Chairman of the House Budget Committee Rep. Paul Ryan released his new proposed congressional budget for 2015.

The Supreme Court ruled in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case that a total cap on individual contributions to political candidates in an election cycle violates the First Amendment right to free speech. While the limit of contributions to any given candidate remains set at $2,600, an individual may now contribute up to $2,600 to as many candidates as desired, leading to possible campaign contributions up to “the number infinity,” as dissenting Justice Breyer put it.

This ruling comes four years after the momentous Citizens United decision that led to the rise of super PACs and a massive influx of money, notably from wealthy and potentially anonymous donors, into the election process. The McCutcheon case will only lead to an even greater influence of money—and those who have lots of it—on the political decisions that affect every American citizen. These two rulings signal the rapid expansion of an already-growing American plutocracy, in which politicians care more about what the rich have to say, because the rich have increasingly greater power in determining who ends up in office.

Conservatives have justified the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings through the argument that campaign contributions are an exercise of free speech. This idea has often been simplified as the slogan, “Money is speech.” However, that understanding is too simple. More appropriate would be “Money buys speech.”

Money is used as a means by which donors amplify the relative magnitude of their voices. The problem is that, if money buys speech in politics, then speech is no longer free. It has a price—and that price is very high.

The average citizen cannot compete with the likes of Sheldon Adelson, who spent at least $98 million on Republican candidates in 2012. Already, several 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls journeyed to a convention in Las Vegas last month to court his support.

A good democracy demands that the average citizen have just as much say as a wealthy one. But if the people cannot afford speech commensurate with that of megadonors, then what little speech they do have becomes essentially worthless in affecting the political dialogue of the nation.

Unsurprisingly, much of the political dialogue of the nation currently benefits the wealthy. Time and again, the current Republican-controlled House has done everything in its power to cut taxes on the rich, while simultaneously decimating funding for social safety programs that benefit America’s most vulnerable people.

Paul Ryan’s new budget proposal, incredibly titled “The Path to Prosperity,” would cut to the bone a wide range of government-funded programs, from education to health care, that primarily benefit lower and middle class families. These economically unjust proposals are part of a bill that also includes a cut of the top marginal tax rate from 39.6 percent (already low by the standards of the last hundred years) to 25 percent. This bill, which is similar to previous proposals that were condemned by expert after expert as economically unsound, would also increase the national deficit.

A budget that benefits the wealthy at such a staggering cost to the rest of the nation is to be expected given the enormous contributions of wealthy donors to conservative PACs. The rich—such as the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and several others—have essentially come to dictate the path of the Republican Party, a path that caters to them and the rest of the economic elite.

The similarities between American politics now and Western Roman politics in the fifth century are truly unsettling. In both cases, the wealthy acquired astonishing sway over a government without enough money to adequately care for its average citizens, and they used that influence to protect, and even increase, their own wealth. I do not believe that America is about to go the way of the Western Roman Empire; we do not face all the same challenges that led to the demise of Rome. Nevertheless, only a fool fails to learn from history, and the lesson here is clear: A government controlled by self-serving plutocrats is not in the best interests of the nation.

The Western Roman Empire fell in the year 476 A.D., but the Eastern Roman Empire—governed by a meritocratic bureaucracy that avoided dominance by plutocrats—lived on for almost another thousand years, until the year 1453. After the fall of the West, the East experienced a rejuvenation, reconquering much of empire’s lost territory, producing the Code of Justinian on which western legal tradition is largely based, and constructing one of the greatest architectural marvels in the world, the Hagia Sophia.

America can continue on the road to plutocracy, or it can uphold principles of good governance. We can choose decline, like Rome, or renewal, like Constantinople.

David F. Clifton ’17 lives in Matthews Hall.

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