Democracy is far from perfect in the United States. Both sides can agree that there is corruption and money hindering the process of democracy. There are too many special interests lobbying to have their way in the law. Campaigns are being funded by the very few richest people in the country. Congressional districts are drawn to ensure that the incumbent party remains in power–this is known as gerrymandering. All of these realities prevent progress. The people lose their democratic voice when campaigns have enough money to endlessly smear opponents and when the districts already give one side an advantage. Additionally, political ideas cannot be debated on their merits alone when monied interests have power over whether politicians will have the funding to be reelected. U.S. democracy does not seem truly ideal when all these problems dismantle the very engine of electing people who will genuinely represent their constituencies.
Senator Bernie Sanders has been calling out these corruptive operations for decades. Donald Trump has also mentioned how these methods are ruining democracy. Now that Sanders is running for President of the United States, he has a much larger audience to proclaim this message. He believes that ending gerrymandering and undisclosed, unlimited campaign donations will put an end to this crooked system. He labels this movement as a “political revolution.” Sanders argues that these changes will return our form of government to being a true democracy once again. However, what will this political revolution require? Who must be involved and what are the channels through which these changes would have to occur? Will ending these practices truly fix our government?
Ending Corrupt Campaign Financing
First and foremost, Sanders believes that ending the current campaign finance system will prevent U.S. democracy from being an oligarchy, wherein elected officials represent the interests of very few extremely wealthy people. Before assigning the cure for this problem, it is necessary to understand how this financing system developed.
The structure of the campaign financing system changed in 2010 with the decisions of Supreme Court cases known as Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission (2010) and SpeechNOW v. The Federal Election Commission (2010). Before and even after these decisions, individuals are limited to donate no more than $2,700 to a candidate for office. Additionally, certain rules applied to corporations, labor unions, and non-profits. They did not then and cannot now donate money directly to a campaign for federal office. Before the decisions, they were also banned from producing independent communications such as campaign advertisements.
However, Citizens United lifted that ban allowing for unlimited contributions to independent organizations that could produce campaign communications. SpeechNOW decided that even individuals could donate unlimited amounts of money to these organizations. Then McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) struck down limits on how many candidates one donor can directly donate to–meaning that although caps for direct contributions to each candidate still exist, one person can give a maximum of $2,700 to every single politician running.
The thought of the Court in Citizens United was that since at least organizations can be independent of official campaigns, this could not lead to quid pro quo corruption and bribery. These decisions allowed for the creation of what are known as Super PACs (political action committees). These groups must regularly issue reports of their donors in an attempt to display transparency to voters and to provide voters with the ability to hold people accountable. However, non-profit organizations are not required to disclose their donors, which allows for what is known as dark money. Large sums of money can be donated by individuals, corporations, unions, etc. with the intent of influencing voters without ever being disclosed to those voters.
So it begins to be clear how these decisions have affected U.S. politics. Unlimited amounts of money can now flow into election seasons influencing voters without any disclosure. Additionally, although the organizations must be independent of campaigns, candidates will still be able to see who is donating to these SuperPACs supporting them. Therefore, corruption is still possible. Plus, even if non-profits do not have to disclose their donors, wealthy people can still contact the politicians they support telling them that they have donated large sums of money to the non-profits.
The data tell the story of just how drastically these decisions have changed the political landscape.
Even worse, much of this money is coming from undisclosed sources.
Important to note is the fact that both parties are guilty of taking advantage of these decisions. However, since wealthy people typically support conservative policies, Republicans have been the recipients of more of these independent organizations’ donations (data from before 2014 election).
All of this leads to the creation of an oligarchy where the wealthy have unequal power via money to change the actions of elected officials. The Supreme Court declared that money is speech, but that money is now being used to establish policies that disenfranchise poorer and less fortunate Americans. Therefore, some citizens’ speech is becoming more powerful than others’. Even if the policies enacted were not disabling others’ economic or social mobility, the very fact that some politicians are now catering to wealthy citizens over others is anti-democratic. Regular citizens do not obtain as much attention from candidates. Their needs are not heard as much. Plus, the wealthy have the ability to endlessly fund commercials that smear other candidates, which dismantles the free marketplace of ideas. Clearly this kind of money in politics ought to end.
So how can this be fixed? Since the highest court in the land has established that money is speech and, therefore, it cannot be limited, new routes must be taken rather than via simple regulation of campaign financing. A constitutional amendment must be passed in order to overturn this ruling, the Supreme Court itself would have to overturn the decisions, or Congress must pass legislation fundamentally changing campaign financing into being publicly funded. However, are these routes plausible?
Route 1: A Constitutional Amendment
The Founding Fathers established that the constitution decrees such fundamental protections that it requires extreme effort and consensus to change. Thus, 66% of both houses of Congress must pass the Amendment. Then, it must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states (75%). This level of agreement is exceedingly difficult to achieve, and that is why the Constitution has been amended just twenty-seven times in its entire history.
If Sanders and others wish for this route to be taken, the attitudes of the entire nations’ politicians must be altered. Many politicians do indeed hate spending their time fundraising. Some reports find that it takes up 50-66% of their time. This may lead people to believe that passing a constitutional amendment on the matter would be easy since politicians hate this reality so much. However, it is not so easy. If such an effort failed, supportive politicians may face backlash from wealthy donors who would be angry at them for supporting such a measure that would end those wealthy donors’ disproportionate power in the system. Therefore, such a movement would have to be certain in its success for politicians to support it.
This requires a bottom-up change in the attitudes of elected officials. They would have to shrug off wealthy donors from the beginning. This is the method of Senator Sanders who does not have a SuperPAC. However, this is difficult for some politicians especially local ones who desperately need the funds to run campaign advertisements in support of them. The public must begin demanding that this is a democratically moral issue wherein candidates will only be supported if they do not accept large sums of dark money.
Route 2: Supreme Court Overturns the Decisions
Sanders and others support nominating Supreme Court justices only if they explicitly support overturning the decisions of Citizens United, SpeechNOW, and McCutcheon. This does seem like a promising method, yet nominees typically do not speak of their positions on specific decisions. Of course, if the nominees were to be former lower-court judges, politicians could look to how they ruled in similar cases. However, the same problem as Route 1 arises. Nominees must be confirmed by Senators, and those Senators may be reluctant in confirming someone who potentially does explicitly support ending this new system of campaign financing due to the fact that wealthy donors could again revolt. This is especially possible since our court system works via concrete review which means that the Court does not have the ability to decide law whenever it wants; a specific case must be brought to it for it to review the constitutionality of the situation. This process may take months or years for a case concerning campaign finance to land at the highest court. Thus, again the movement must begin with the citizenry electing people only if they do not accept dark money in the first place.
Route 3: Congress Enacts Publicly Funded Elections
This solution seems like the best way to fully prevent wealthy and powerful individuals from having any unequal power in influencing elected officials. Publicly funding elections would entail possibly an optional donation on tax forms that would be used to provide equal amounts of funding to each politician running for office. This would ensure equality in the amount of ads and other communications each candidate runs in a campaign. However, once again the logistics of achieving this policy rest on the courage of elected officials in Congress and the Executive Branch. Due to fear of potential backlash, politicians must feel the pressure from the citizenry that this reform must be achieved.
Regardless of the route that is chosen, it seems as though every single one faces the same obstacle. Senator Sanders publicly supports all three routes, and they all could deliver the desired goal; however, this change will require a movement much bigger than one man. Even if this man were to become president and have that stage from which to transmit this message, it will still require the people demanding that politicians no longer accept dark money. This movement is surely going to take many years and much effort.
But wait. There is one more route not mentioned by Senator Sanders.
Route 4: Local Ballot Initiatives Start the Movement from the Bottom-Up
An organization known as RepresentUs has begun forming coalitions of Americans across the country to end this corruption in the campaign finance system without a need for direct action from Congress or the Court. 22,000 cities across the U.S. provide the ability for citizens to vote on laws via ballot initiatives. Thus, local petitions with enough signatures can place what has become known as The American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA) on local ballots. This law would establish publicly funded elections and prevent candidates from accepting dark money. Passing such a law by the people’s vote could begin the process of electing corruption-free politicians at the local level. Then those politicians could flow into state government free of dark money. There they would begin to pass statewide AACA’s, which would then send candidates to the federal level who are free of dark money. This would begin the process of filling the federal government with people who support passing a national AACA. This is the ground-up approach that the nation must take in order to begin ending political corruption once and for all.
Senator Sanders notes that this democratic process will only be successful if all people have access to vote. He argues for “restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, implementing automatic voter registration, ending gerrymandering and making Election Day a national holiday.” However, if the very people in government are in charge of ensuring that these protections are in place, the people again must demand that their officials follow their will, and the people must make voting a priority.
This argument highlights the need to fix the very process of voting and drawing congressional districts.
Ending Gerrymandered Congressional Districts
Currently most states have laws that require that congressional districts be redrawn after a census is performed (every ten years). In most states, the party in control of the legislature and executive branch are able to draw districts that favor their party. They do this by including certain areas where there is certainty to be more people of one party over the other and excluding the opposite areas. Take a look at the bizarre maps that have been drawn across the country.
Illinois District 4
Illinois District 17
Maryland District 3
Clearly these districts are drawn to precisely include or exclude certain voters as to favor the party currently in power. This gerrymandering strips candidates of the opposing party from having a fair chance in a certain congressional district. This method of drawing congressional districts must end in order to provide citizens with their democratic ability to vote for someone who can then go on to follow the will of the people.
Ending this practice may again seem difficult as laws would have to be passed by the very legislatures who engage in this gerrymandering. However, some states have taken it into their own hands via ballot initiatives. Six states have established independent, nonpartisan commissions that draw districts fairly not giving one party an advantage over the other with demographics. Again, this process of rebuilding U.S. democracy will only occur via voter demands and ballot initiatives.
Even if gerrymandering and campaign finance are fixed, there is still one area of U.S. politics corrupting the system.
Ending the Revolving Door of Lobbyists
Currently lobbyists of special interest, such as the gun lobby or banking industry, have the ability to directly or indirectly donate to politicians. They can even donate to politicians that serve on the very congressional committees that are intended to regulate their own industries, such as a bank giving money to someone who sits on the Financial Services Committee. The chair of that committee-Jeb Hensarling–has actually raised almost $500,000 in this election cycle from the financial services industry. It is no wonder that these powerful lobbyists then have enormous leverage power over an official like Representative Hensarling.
Not only can lobbyists fund the very officials who regulate them, those lobbyists increase their leverage power by promising to elected officials a high-paying job at their firms once their public service has ended. Hundreds of former members of Congress have gone on to become lobbyists. 50% of candidates who lost their bid for reelection in the 113th Congress then went to a lobbying firm for employment. This offer by lobbying firms sweetens the deal for current members of Congress to be easy in legislating on the industries that such firms represent. The counterargument to this practice is that former members should be able to become lobbyists as they have the best relationships with other members and understand how legislating works. However, isn’t this inherently unfair? The wealthiest lobbying firms can pay the highest dollar for former members so that they can have ultimate leveraging power.
On the flip side, lobbyists may become government officials who then appoint other lobbyists to regulatory positions. To the public, they will argue that these people were chosen for their experience in the industry. However, this practice also allows for the newly appointed regulators to go easy on their former coworkers and friends still in the industries they are supposed to regulate.
This revolving door of lobbyists turned lawmakers and vice versa can indeed be ended. Actually the proposed American Anti-Corruption Act establishes an end to this practice as well. Legislation could prevent industries from directly or indirectly contributing to officials who serve on committees meant to regulate them. However, committee members may be chosen after election; therefore, publicly funded elections would be the only way to truly prevent this type of corruption. Additionally, legislation could establish multiple-year agreements on how long a government official would have to wait before gaining employment at a related lobbying firm. In order to stop lobbyists from becoming politicians, citizens must decide whether it is better to have someone with industry experience or whether that would mean biased leeway toward the industry.
In order to return U.S. government to being a fully functioning democracy once again, these three areas must be reformed. Citizens must demand publicly funded elections, independently drawn congressional districts, and regulations on lobbying. However, these measures cannot be achieved from one party or the other winning the majority in government. They will not be achieved with one man or woman’s election. They will be achieved when American citizens join together in a movement demanding that every single elected official support these policies. If the current candidates running do not, then citizens must be louder until a suitable candidate does come along. Additionally, citizens must go out to vote and also vote on ballot initiatives that can build these reforms from the local level to the state level to the national level. The progress will not be easy nor quick, but this seems to be the only way to wage a political revolution that both Democrats and Republicans both desperately desire.