Carl Sacklen

Money and Politics - It's a Rich Man's World

The dome of the iconic Capitol building is crumbling and in desperate need of renovation. From the shadow of the scaffolding-clad dome escapes a loud roar of voices and chants. Having moved into the crowd, I am standing in a sea of dreadlocks and placards, witnessing what has since been referred to by some media outlets as the “largest civil disobedience action of the century”.

As the presidential race gets underway, Democracy Spring, having marched over 100 miles from Philadelphia (where the Constitution was signed in 1787), were now at the steps of Congress demanding that big money and politics be kept separate. Peter Callahan, the group’s communications director, told me the outsider pressure group is a grassroots organisation campaigning for “Congress to take immediate action to limit money of special interest in politics”.

Six years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in favour of conservative non-profit group Citizens United that they could broadcast adverts for a film criticising Democratic nomination candidate Hillary Clinton. Prior to this ruling, airing such adverts would have violated the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act which barred corporations and unions from paying for media that referred to any political candidate in times directly before an election. Citizens United sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and when the case reached the Supreme Court, an appeal was granted.

The argument from the court majority was that barring independent political spending can be equated with suppressing free speech, hence making such a law unconstitutional and in conflict with the First Amendment. The five justices also argued that the public has the right to hear all information, and a cap on spending would impair information reaching the public. Essentially this means that big unions and corporations are able to influence campaigns and members of Congress in their decisions. The right-wing Koch brothers for instance, are the second richest family in the USA and have made clear their intent to spend $750 million on Republican political campaigns in the 2016 presidential election.

It is argued that this places the political power “in the hands of the few, not the many”, essentially turning the democracy into an effective oligarchy. Interestingly, 84 per cent of Americans believed “money has a corruptive influence on politics”.

Suddenly the crowd erupts into cheers, and through the heads and banners I see a group of protesters being led down the steps of the Capitol in handcuffs by police. Mr Callahan tells me the number of arrests is fast approaching 1000 and, according to some marchers, police had to resort to using warehouses for the protesters. However, most of them get out the same day or the next morning.

“I think many people have the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street. … The real truth is that Wall Street regulates the Congress.”  — Sen. Bernie Sanders

The effectiveness of such direct action can be called into question. The Democracy Spring website allows people to “pledge to risk arrest”. They even have lessons on how to be arrested. Whilst the group is non-violent, on the surface it may be received by some as a group of disruptive hippies. Their distracting noise and usage of police resources is far from laudable. Most of those arrested are so because they violate a D.C. statute that prohibits “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding”. The reality, Mr Callahan assures me, is different. He tells me civil disobedience is “the only way of achieving big systematic policy changes”. He harks back to the struggle for LGBT rights, civil rights, and women’s suffrage and assures me that mobilising people is the “only way it has ever worked, in the States at least”. People have to put themselves on the line, he says, and it can be effective if they “maintain a non-violent discipline and show resolve when getting arrested”. When I asked a protester how effective direct action can be, she gave the same answer, asserting “that’s the only way to do it; people mobilisation.”

Whilst Sanders was the only politician in the race to endorse the group, Mr Callahan tells me this movement “is bigger than one election, candidate or party”. Americans have a “Congress that is unresponsive to the people” and its low approval ratings, Mr Callahan tells me, are down to the fact that many members of Congress aren’t able to represent the people properly because they are beholden to the special interest money.

He alludes to the fact that US democracy has stagnated when he tells me “once we fix this issue we can start to work on all the other issues that we all care about”. And when he says “we all”, he doesn’t just mean the dreadlock-adorned Bernie fans. Concern about the amount of money involved in US politics is widespread across the political spectrum. In recent protests, he tells me, conservatives have shown support alongside liberals and in the march Republicans marched shoulder to shoulder with Democrats. Mr Callahan also claims that members of Republican state legislatures and even a member, albeit low-ranking, of Bush’s administration had joined the march.

The surges in left-wing and right-wing anti-politics in the US embody this anger that many Americans have towards the establishment and corporations’ interference in the political realm. “I’m not against corporations” said one protester, “but I am against them getting involved in politics”. This is the view of the majority of Democracy Spring supporters. Voting for Trump and Sanders “is a reaction to the money in politics” says a Trump supporter. Sanders has funded his campaign almost entirely on small grassroots donations, each one averaging $27 according to a speech he gave at a recent CNN debate, and Trump has self-funded the majority of his campaign (70 per cent of all the money Sanders has raised for his campaign has come from individual donations less than $200).

Clinton however, has come under intense criticism for where her campaign contributions have come from, having raised only 17 per cent through small donations (donations less than $200) according to the Federal Election Commission. Only $7.5m of Trump’s $25 million campaign money is from individual donors, also according to the FEC. Both the “Trump and Sanders phenomena show how Americans are sick and tired of politicians being bought and paid for,” says Mr Callahan.

The blame for corrupting politics, Democracy Spring emphasises, does not lie with any one group of people. One “shouldn’t expect people to voluntarily police themselves in these situations”. He goes on to explain that Democracy Spring believes the fault lies in the laws that big donors are allowed to follow. “I’m not going to put the blame on people following the rules they were given,” he says. Right now the “buying-off of politicians” obstructs the one-person-one-vote principle on which America’s democracy was built on and revered for.