On Monday, more than 400 protesters, including at least one from Morgantown, were arrested in Washington D.C. as part of the Democracy Spring movement. A recent CNN article reported many of these individuals marched from Philadelphia to D.C. and planned acts of civil disobedience throughout the week. Though their actions seem troublesome on the surface, their voices are worth listening to if we value democracy as a political goal.
In a democracy, everyone is supposed to have an equal voice in government. This is how it differs from oligarchy (rule by the few) and plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). Since childhood, we are told America is the flagship democracy, where everyone gets an equal vote in elections. However, is this enough to ensure everyone has an equal voice?
According to the Democracy Spring website, "American elections are dominated by billionaires and big money interests who can spend unlimited sums of money on political campaigns to protect their special interests at the general expense." The movement demands for Congress to "take immediate action to end the corruption of big money in politics and ensure free and fair elections in which every American has an equal voice."
While the story is a bit more complicated than the Democracy Spring website claims, the current campaign finance system is in conflict with everyone having an equal voice in government.
In 2014, Princeton and Northwestern University professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published an article titled "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens." This study analyzed more than 1,700 policy decisions, as well as public opinion surveys, business interests and interest group actions in order to test different theories as to who controls American political action.
They conclude by stating business interests tend to influence public policy much more than public opinion. In their words, "When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."
Many, including these researchers, attribute this influence by the business-class partially to their ability to spend a great amount of money in elections. This is what Democracy Spring protesters are trying to end. They claim candidates must receive money from wealthy donors in order to win elections, so it is no surprise they tend to support the interests of wealthy individuals and businesses. If candidates would oppose these interests, they would not be able to compete against their well-funded opponents.
The American campaign finance system is complex and deserves study in its own right, but there are two basic ways to influence elections: direct and indirect contributions. A 2015 report from the Bennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law states direct contributions to politicians are limited to relatively small amounts by law.
However, the report, titled "Beyond Coordination: Defining Indirect Campaign Contributions for the Super PAC Era," claims indirect contributions are much more complicated. It says at least some types of indirect spending, such as funding some political advertisements without communication with a candidate’s campaign, are not able to be limited by law. This is one of the major impacts of the so-called "Citizens United" Supreme Court Decision in 2010.
Thus, wealthy individuals and business interests are able to propagate information and give a larger platform to some candidates than others through indirect contributions, and they are able to do this to a larger extent than poorer people simply because they have more money to distribute. Even if everyone has an equal vote in elections, wealthy individuals and business interests have more sway over the actions of candidates and elected officials who hope to win again in the future. As indicated in the Gilens and Page study, this means America is, in fact, not a democracy.
Some may object to these contributions being protected as free speech under the law, but this argument should be taken seriously, and we need to understand it is fundamentally undemocratic. If the argument is correct, it is an argument against a democratic system and against groups being able to influence policies more readily than others.
Those who believe in democracy must side with the Democracy Spring protestors. If everyone deserves an equal say, we must get money out of politics.