Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Opinion

April 8, 2014

Lion and the Lamb: Do we really believe in democracy?

CROSSVILLE — The recent Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is in a long line of debates about power in a democracy. Should power be in the hands of all the citizens or should it be in hands of those who have greater wealth and social position?

The debate is reflected in our U.S. Constitution. The Electoral College, for instance, was created to be a buffer between the general population and the selection of a president. The founders did not trust the ordinary person to make a good choice. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." One result has been that presidents are sometime chosen by the Electoral College in spite of a majority of votes for an opponent. 

Hamilton wrote elsewhere who these small numbers of persons should be. "All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the wellborn, the other the mass of the people... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine rightly. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government." Contrary to Hamilton's expectation, the fact of the matter is the rich and wellborn again and again put the protection of their wealth and power first, before the general good of the whole community.

In the late 19th century the so-called Robber Barons put sacks of money and bundles of stock certificates on the desks of our national legislators who then voted huge subsidies to the railroads. These subsidies included vast acres of public land handed over to the railroads.

A more recent example is the vote in 1996 by the Congress to allocate funding for another B-2 bomber. A report commissioned by Congress on the subject determined that no more B-2 bombers should be built in 1995. The Pentagon declared that it did not want any more B-2 bombers. Yet Congress went ahead and voted to proceed with the bomber. Could it be that the $320,775 Northrup Grumman, the builder of the bomber, donated to members of Congress in 1995 (twice what they gave in 1993 and 1994) influenced the votes of Congress?

The decision of the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case clearly favors the wealthy. The Court said there should be no limit on the total amount an individual can contribute directly to candidates; no limit on the total amount an individual can contribute to political parties or other political groups; no limit on the total amount an individual can contribute to candidates, parties, and political committees in an election. This means during any two year election cycle a single individual will be able to give $3.6 million. This is only the latest in a series of six decisions handed down by the Court since 2006 to strike down campaign finance restrictions.

The Court's decisions in the light of the growing income and wealth inequality raises a question. If there are little or no restraints on the amounts individuals and corporations can give to election campaigns who will control our government: "We the people" or "We the wealthy and well connected"? Which will speak louder to our representatives?

A nation where each vote counts is called a democracy. Is our country going to be a democracy where all eligible citizens participate equally, either directly or through representatives? Or is our nation going to be an oligarchy where political power is exercised by a small and privileged group? As the great jurist Louis Brandeis described the choice before us: "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can't have both."

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