Recent Supreme Court decisions, such as Citizens United and McCutcheon, make it imperative that we limit the ability of the wealthiest citizens and large corporations to exert disproportionate control over our politics. In fact, Mainers have begun a major push to counter the influence of “dark money” and the substantial inertia and overt resistance built into our political economy.
The first part of that task is reminding citizens how much is at stake. It’s also important to remind citizens that, even in the wake of recent setbacks in the courts, all is not lost. Solutions do exist, but they will only be passed and implemented when and if citizens take the lead.
The current campaign finance system allows the wealthy to invest in politics in much the same way hedge fund managers and venture capital firms invest in new business operations. They seek to purchase legislators and regulators who will increase the returns to their bottom lines. As David Cay Johnston, a long-time student of inequality, points out, thus far they have been able to reap large returns on their investments. This process has continued over a generation and is in large measure responsible for a tax code that disproportionately favors the rich.
In addition, wealthy investors can take credit for the deregulation, near catastrophic collapse and subsequent taxpayer bailout of the financial system. Most citizens realize today that government policy, whether it be taxation, regulations, fiscal policy or trade deals, are skewed to the rich. What is less apparent is that enforcement and nonenforcement of even progressive laws favors the most wealthy and powerful.
Mortgage fraud, securities violations and currency manipulation are at most treated as civil offenses for which only token fines are levied. In 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated prosecution of big investment firms could pose a threat to the economy. What he really says is these institutions trump our democratic values.
If the current situation is bad, there are reasons to worry it may become more dire. Our environment, political system and economy are co-evolving in ways that threaten our survival. As the wealthy make further investments in politics, they reap ever larger tax breaks, bailouts and more egregious deregulation of environmental and financial laws.
These trends and accompanying crises are likely only to enable further consolidation of power. The six largest investment banks controlled 50 percent of gross national product before the recession of 2008. Today it’s 60 percent. Just as dangerously, they continue the same process of shaky and highly leveraged derivatives in the full confidence that we, the taxpayers, will bail them out.
This political evolution has cultural consequences that further these trends. Citizens lose faith in government, which, in a dangerous paradox, further encourages the flight to deregulation, underfunding of key infrastructure, thereby confirming the sense that government “can’t do anything right.” Resulting economic dislocations often issue in periodic demonization of minority groups and a politics of right-wing and left-wing extremism.
Nonetheless, this does not need to be our fate. The clean elections initiative taking root in Maine strengthens democracy, increases transparency and bolsters accountability. This initiative would fully fund Maine Clean Elections by closing corporate tax loopholes. It would eliminate dark money by requiring full disclosure of sources of political advertising.
Finally, the initiative would expand public financing based not merely on the level of private expenditure but also, crucially, upon proof of broader citizen interest. This initiative has a good chance of surviving court challenges. And by building on the popularity of Maine’s clean elections system, seeking signatures for an initiative to strengthen it and pursuing more citizen support for candidates facing high private spending, we forge democratic alternatives to the dangerous politics of the present.
John Buellof Southwest Harbor is a columnist for The Progressive Populist. His most recent book is “Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.”