By Lee A. Daniels
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court added another layer of bricks to the wall conservatives are trying to build to transform the American political system from a one-person-one-vote democracy into one that is ruled—via legislative enactments and judicial decision-making—by the wealthiest individuals and corporate entities.
The court’s five-member conservative faction in the case of McCutcheon v FEC (the Federal Election Commission) struck down limits on the total amount of money individuals can give to the political parties and candidates for the House and Senate during any two-year election cycle. That means that while individuals are still limited to giving no more than $2,600 to each candidate during an election campaign, now, unlike in the past, there’s no limit to how many congressional candidates they can lavish money on.
Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that that provision of the federal campaign finance laws was a violation of the “free speech” rights of individuals to participate as fully in the political process as they saw fit.
Now, all those who were surprised by the court’s conservatives’ stance, raise your hands.
Okay, you’ve just admitted you haven’t been paying attention to national affairs for at least the last six years. You’re not aware that the Republican Party response to its massive failure of electoral politics has been to double-down on its desperate bet that it can regain power by wrecking the country’s democratic political traditions. For one thing, you’ve forgotten the lesson of Bush vs. Gore, the 5-to-4 vote by the court’s conservative faction that gave the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush: The conservative movement is committed to controlling the political system, not to democracy.
And the court’s conservative faction did what it could to help them.
But conservatives didn’t count on the train wreck the Bush presidency would become. Nor did they count on Barack Obama – a relative political newcomer they derided as a mere “community organizer:” — out-organizing and out-spending the supposed crackerjack GOP political machine on his way to the White House.
The Republican Party response was three-fold. First, oppose any and every Obama administration proposal. Second, break the Democratic Party voting coalition via restrictive voting laws. That produced from GOP-dominated state legislatures in advance of the 2012 election a flurry of so-called voter identification laws whose real intent was to prevent significant numbers of Black, Hispanic and young voters in college from voting. And finally, in 2010, there was the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, in which the conservative 5-member majority, likening corporations to individuals, declared that the ban against corporate contributions to political campaigns was a violation of corporations’ free-speech rights. Many conservatives jubilantly predicted the decision would make Obama a one-term president come 2012.
But, again, the “community organizer,” playing the game conservatives thought they had rigged, out-organized and out-spent the GOP ticket on his way to a decisive re-election victory. That victory was grounded in an extraordinary turnout by Black voters, the “lead” voting bloc in the Democratic Party coalition.
The conservative response to that growing determination of Blacks to make their voices heard in the political process – has been to double-down on efforts to limit Black voters’ access to the ballot box. The Supreme Court conservative faction last year struck down the key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – in effect, giving those jurisdictions with a long-demonstrated history of trying to suppress the Black vote permission to keep on trying. And, according to the just-published, Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century, since the 2012 election at least 82 bills restricting voting access have been introduced in the 31 states where more than 20 million Black Americans live.
That conservative dynamic of doubling-down on efforts to limit, if not reverse the expansion of democracy in America, which can be seen across the political landscape, offers the best perspective for considering the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision. The blather in the majority opinion about the free-speech rights of the wealthy is just a fig-leaf throwaway line meant to obscure a naked power grab.
The plaintive response of “LaylaS” from Chicago to a New York Times news story on the ruling poignantly describes its effect on democracy. “This ruling violates the First Amendment,” LaylaS writes. “It gives ‘freedom of speech’ to the wealthy, while severely limiting the freedom of speech [of] those of us who cannot afford to buy ads in support of our candidates. … [It] basically says that the wealthy are more equal than the poor or middle class. Isn’t there some way this ruling can be appealed? I don’t understand why the Supreme Court, which is appointed by partisan presidents, should have the last word in deciding whose free speech is better and more worthy than someone else.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.