Democracy under siege
By Jeff Lauck, Contributing Writer
If you were on campus on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 you might have noticed a few students yelling something about “big money in politics” while standing around a cardboard cutout of the White House on Stine Lake. If you checked your campus mailbox anytime in the past month, you probably got a fake $50 bill telling you to come to that very same event. In any event, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
I have some unfortunate news. American democracy is broken. I’m not just talking about all the instances of sketchy election business and accusations of voter suppression. Those are admittedly huge problems, too, but American democracy is under siege from a much larger threat. From the Presidential race down to your local congressional races, wealthy Americans, corporations, labor unions and other special interest groups are funneling huge sums of money into campaigns to guarantee special treatment from candidates once they are elected.
In the overwhelming majority of races, the candidate who spends the most money usually wins the race. But it’s not just about these groups and individuals undermining the voice of the American people by influencing election outcomes. More often than not, these groups and individuals make these contributions to multiple candidates–from both parties. This means that no matter who wins a race, the elected leader will be beholden to his or her campaign contributors. Republicans and Democrats alike receive billions of dollars from pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, gun, private prison, and banking corporations and lobbying groups, making sure that nobody in Congress or the White House tackles big issues like healthcare reform, carbon emissions, gun control, prison reform, immigration reform, high corporate subsidies, and immigration reform. If you’re unhappy with the gridlock in Congress, follow the money.
Our elected leaders don’t like this broken system any more than the American people do. Legislators spend a majority of their time fundraising or making calls to big donors begging them for money. It turns out that politicians, just like most Americans, don’t like debasing themselves by groveling for money all day long. They would rather be out making laws or communicating with their constituency, which I might remind you is exactly what the American taxpayers are paying them to do in the first place.
Luckily, there are some alternatives to fix this broken campaign finance system. First, we need more transparency in who is donating what and to whom. If the American people know that Candidate A and Candidate B are both bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers and/or George Soros, they will demand other options. This will open the door for a new generation of politicians of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds that represents the wishes of the American people, not special interest groups.
Second, we need to limit the amount of money each person or organization can donate and make that limit closer to what the average American can realistically contribute. After the disastrous Citizens United court case in 2010, anyone can secretly donate unlimited sums of money to a SuperPAC, which can then funnel money into a campaign or in support of a candidate. This gives them a greater voice in American democracy than you or I. That is fundamentally unfair.
Third and finally, we need to implement publicly funded elections. Instead of having to grovel for money to have a chance of winning an election, candidates can receive money from state governments or the federal government to run their campaigns. Several states, including my home state of Connecticut, have already started using publicly funded elections with impressive results. Corruption in the state decreased, more and more minorities and women were able to winoffices, and policy better reflected the will of the people rather than special interest groups. Admittedly, taxpayer dollars will have to be used to fund these campaigns. However, the cost works out to be around $7 per person. This means that for the price of a Starbucks coffee, you can have a well-functioning democracy back.
The good news is that millions of Americans are getting behind this movement to take back our democracy. A recent poll found that over 80% of Americans–Democrats and Republicans–believe that money has too great an influence in politics. A few weeks ago, hundreds of protesters marched from Philadelphia to our nation’s capital to demonstrate their solidarity for the movement. Once they arrived in Washington, they were gathered by thousands of others who spend two weeks protesting, lobbying, and participating in civil disobedience to show that they are fed up with the way things are. Over 1,000 people were arrested–the highest number ever arrested in our nation’s capital. On April 17, several thousand protesters–including several from Gettysburg College–gathered in front of the Capitol building before peacefully marching en masse before the Capitol and Supreme Court. Democracy is awakening in our great nation. It is our responsibility to make sure it stays woke.