On An American Oligarchy

As I digest the news of the FBI investigation targeting Governor McAuliffe, I recall the old political maxim: the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.

In our Governor’s case, a New Jersey based company owned by Chinese billionaire-politician Wang Wenliang contributed $120,000 to McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign and inaugural committee.

It’s illegal for foreign nationals (and thus corporations) to donate to campaigns, but Wang is a permanent resident of the U.S. And while the FBI and Justice Department continue to investigate whether or not the Governor lobbied on behalf of a foreign entity, the sizable donation in-itself appears legal.

That’s because Virginia, like six other states, allows unlimited campaign contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs, unions, and the state party.

This is the scandal.

But it’s also the putrid, local discharge of a national infection that’s rapidly consuming our most cherished democratic institutions. An infection that’s the source of what, in Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison calls “the mortal diseases under which popular governments everywhere have perished.”

The cause of this infection? A corrupt campaign finance system propelled by seemingly infinite supplies of money from special interests and billionaires.

Make no mistake – the Founders, including Madison, were not diehard democrats. A glance at the Constitution makes this clear: an Electoral College elects the president, the Supreme Court is appointed by the president, and the Senate was appointed by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment). Not to mention slavery, lack of women’s suffrage, and a total disregard for Native Americans.

The one institution that was meant to be democratic was the House of Representatives, a group directly elected by the people to make law on their behalf. Yet the claim that the House (and now Senate) are still democratic is dubious at best, propagandistic at worst.

Careful analysis and popular intuition suggest that our system is hardly democratic. In fact, it best resembles an oligarchy.

Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) suggested as much in their 2014 study, concluding not only that the preferences of interest groups don’t necessarily align with those of citizens, but that the preferences of “the most influential, business-oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.”

Their coup de grâce: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, [the citizens] generally lose.”

This is by no means coincidental. A 60 Minutes special last month revealed a primary duty of members of Congress: cold-calling donors to raise money. The report was a damning indictment of both parties, providing a glimpse into the sordid world of “democratic representation.”

Servants, absolutely. Public servants, absolutely not.

The legal development of this corruption can be traced through the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) to the more recent (and more infamous) Citizens United v. FEC (2010).

Here’s the logic: campaign contributions are forms of political speech protected by the First Amendment; corporations, as associations of individuals, also have political speech rights; restrictions on contributions from corporations violate the First Amendment.

Since Citizens United, we’ve seen the rise of Super PACs that can raise unlimited funds from individuals and corporations. In the 2012 elections, over $800 million was raised by Super PACs, a figure that’ll be surpassed in 2016. And according to the Washington Post, as of February of this year, 41 percent of this money “came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives.”

Sounds like an oligarchy to me.

So how can we treat this infection? What prescriptions have our presidential candidates offered?

Donald Trump has openly bragged about manipulating politicians through this corrupt system. Last summer, he told the Wall Street Journal: “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has to explain away millions of dollars in paid speeches to major financial institutions, an embrace of Super PACs that have already raised over $100 million, and a professional history of schmoozing with oligarchs. So far, her campaign has relied on the reasoning behind the conservative majority opinion in Citizens United.

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who’s spoken about this issue honestly, credibly, and without contempt for the public’s intelligence.

Here in Virginia, our Sanders Delegation has submitted a resolution for consideration at the Democratic State Convention in Richmond on June 18th. The resolution calls for an Article V Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. We must make clear that money is not political speech, and corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights.

As has always been the case with democratic movements, the burden lies squarely on the people. We are the antibodies. And until we mobilize and reform this corrupt system, we remain complicit in the rapid decay of democracy.