A projected total of $3.6 billion was spent during the 2014 midterm election, according the Center for Responsive Politics. According to the Supreme Court, unlimited spending on elections is protected speech under the First Amendment, leaving the floodgates open for high-wealth individuals and organizations to assert their interests. Some, like Thomas Hayes, a professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, argue such an arrangement can be toxic for democracy.
Professor Hayes has dedicated his academic career to the exploration of inequality by analyzing public opinion, legislative responsiveness, and economic disparity. Wealth inequality and representative inequality have given Professor Hayes cause to call for a reformation in how we as the American public should approach democracy and representation.
“[A]s Zephyr Teachout notes in a recent book on this topic, corruption was a deep concern of the Founding Fathers and for much of American history lobbying as we see it today was not permitted. I think we need to consider whether it’s fair to equate money and speech as the Court has done in some narrow and political decisions. And, it’s not clear that the public is really on board with recent Supreme Court rulings in this regard either. The rulings are not just unpopular with most Americans, but also seem to violate another fundamental aspect of democracy — that citizens should be treated as political equals. It’s difficult to see how people are treated as political equals when there is so much of a disparity in how campaigns are funded.”
Much like our Founding Fathers, he may be right to fear the impact money can have on political inequality.
For the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, corruption was fueled by an inappropriate interdependence that usurped the political equality of those without the means to purchase patronage.
Historically, the use of public office or political influence for the exclusive benefit of private interests was regarded as corruption. One of the earliest examples was the Bank of the United States, the largest private interest organization of the early 1800s. It was considered corrupt after employing several congressmen to its board of directors.
James Madison addressed this conflict of interest fostered by the Bank of the United States in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote, “Of all the shameful circumstances of business, it is among the greatest to see the members of the Legislature who were most active in pushing this Job, openly grasping its emoluments.”
The Founders realized that for a democratic society the crux exists in creating a standard by which every person is equal. But what happens when corporations, like the Democratic and Republican parties, are legally afforded the same rights as people? Professor Hayes believes the consequences are stark:
“This topic of corporate personhood is interesting as the Court has long recognized corporations as having many of the same legal rights as individuals, but it seems this was the result of an accident rather than a purposeful decision. The case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) first recognized corporations as persons, citing the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. In effect, corporations were given equal rights both formally and in practice far before many citizens of the United States had voting rights (e.g. African Americans and women). The available evidence from the historical record shows the decision to identify corporations as persons was in many ways accidental, as the language was added later by the court reporter who wrote the introduction to the decision.
While the idea of corporate personhood is being challenged in some interesting ways, from the standpoint of a democratic society, the idea that corporations should have the same political rights as legal persons is ludicrous. Corporations are legal creations and don’t exist in the same way people do. A corporation can’t drink water or eat food or feel pain in the way people do, so perhaps we should be more concerned with making sure actual people have representation in government rather than legally constructed entities whose sole purpose is to generate capital for shareholders.”
Yet the legal precedent has already been set. Organizations like Represent.us and Money Out have been activating voters while searching for alternatives to the status quo. For Hayes the answer lies in the people:
“A very basic reform that would go a long way in ensuring better protections of First Amendment rights would be to put pressure on all levels of government (local, state, national) to prevent police from using arbitrary tactics in breaking up political protests, most especially with the use of force.”
“This issue is gaining some media attention with the protests in Fergusson, but it goes much deeper than just this instance. During the Occupy Wall St. movement, protests in many localities (not just in New York) were subject to harsh tactics in an attempt to end the mostly peaceful protests. The ability of citizens to be able to peacefully demonstrate should be paramount in our democracy and the fact that people concerned with a heavy tilt toward oligarchy were prevented from protesting is shameful. The only way for things to change is for the people to be able to put pressure on their elected leaders. As the famous historian Howard Zinn wrote, ‘No Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no voting procedures, no piece of legislation can assure us of peace or justice or equality. That requires a constant struggle, a continuous discussion among citizens, an endless series of organizations and movements, creating a pressure on whatever procedures there are.’”
Our assured rights as determined by the Bill of Rights centers on the need for individual equality — the power of the individual to shape the world around them. Each right established by our Founding Fathers was done so under the assumption that the democratic values of individual sovereignty and political equality were tantamount to human rights and dignity. Without political equality there are neither protections of individual rights nor democratic values.