The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the portion of Arizona’s public campaign finance law providing matching funds for political candidates facing high spending opponents is disturbing. This coupled with the Citizens United decision are part of a larger trend making it far too easy for a select, wealthy minority to control our elected officials. Prior to the modern age and the advent of democracy, the wealthy have had a stranglehold on any major decisions regarding the lives of the people. Thankfully, in recent history our political system has managed to temper some of that discrepancy through the accessibility of the democratic political process. However, if policies and decisions are made that continue to allow those with the most money to have almost limitless influence on elections several dynamics are likely to shift in a way unhealthy to the future of not only this county, but society as a whole.
Elected officials, no longer beholden to the majority of their constituents, will instead listen to the highest bidders. In a system where corporations can donate with little accountability, it is very unlikely the poorer majority will be able to overcome the desires of the wealthy minority. In a perfect world these ideals would be in line with one another, however, when money is the key to influence, altruism takes a back seat to one’s self interest. Furthermore, the system will continue to become more lopsided as the policies reflect the ideals and interests of those with the money. When the top 10 percent of Americans control close to two-thirds of the wealth it is unlikely any decisions would be in line with the majority of the public.
The already vast wealth gap will continue to increase. When elected officials start taking marching orders from the richer minority, it is likely laws will protect that wealth, and by definition, grow the gap. This would be a dire situation for a number of reasons. First, it would make life far more difficult for those not a part of that small elite. Furthermore, the less people who control the wealth in any given society, the higher the risk. This type of volatility could lead to an economic meltdown that may cause massive damage throughout the world both in human life and spirit.
People will give up. Perhaps the single most dangerous result of continuing to infuse politics with massive sums of money is the hopelessness it will instill in those without. Already we suffer from a segment of the population that is largely apathetic. Either they don’t have the time to focus on the messiness that is political world, or they are simply disenfranchised by how inaccessible they perceive it to be. Adding more money from large corporations and special interests only makes this endemic worse. When your population stops caring, democracy as an institution and an ideal ceases to function. Instead we are left with some form of government lead by an elite few who care little for the plights of the common citizen.
Does this potentially foreboding future mean we should simply do away with government? Most definitely not. We must instead stand up to individuals who would equate the ability of monied interests to buy elections with freedom of speech. When an elected official or higher court makes it easier for money to influence our system of governance we need to let them know we find this inexcusable. We must continue to care about the society we live in and not allow those with the convenience of wealth to determine our fates. As the late, great Paul Wellstone once said, “Politics isn’t about big money or power games; it’s about the improvement of people’s lives.”