Money In Politics

The Case For Why It Is The Issue of Our Time

There are any number of shocking facts that can demonstrate how out of control money in politics has become. For example, a mere 200 individuals have provided almost 80% of the Super PAC money spent in the 2012 election cycle so far.

But we don't need to see facts like this to convince us, we know, deep in our core, that our system is out of control. We know that there is too much money. We know that there are very powerful forces at work influencing decisions. We know that often the best decisions are being killed in favor of no decision or worse yet the wrong decision.

I would argue that money in politics isn't just a huge problem, but rather that it is the problem of our day. It is the cause of our time. Just like women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, and other movements in our history, money in politics is the calling for our generation. If we fail to answer this call, it's hard to see how the nation we once knew, the nation we hope to be, can possibly continue.

Recently when I was giving a talk on this issue, I raised the idea that getting money out of politics possesses the same political and cultural import as other movements like the Women's Suffrage movement. Several people in the audience pushed back failing to see how this could be so. It seemed so clear to me I was taken aback by their challenge to the idea. As I reflected further it became clear that I was going to need to make a compelling case if I were to prove that the great brutality inflicted upon those in the civil rights movement, the great inequality of the women's suffrage movement, the great human cost of other movements somehow equate to our current struggle with money in politics.

Then a miraculous thing happened. A prominent leader of the civil rights movement made that case for me. Last week on the Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, John Lewis made an impassioned and compelling argument that recent efforts to amend the 1965 Voting Rights Act as well as the rash of laws across the country to suppress voting is a "deliberate and systematic effort on the part of elected officials in so many states to deny and keep people from participating in the political process." In his recent book "Across That Bridge" Congressman Lewis goes on to say:

"Even I, who has looked down the barrel of a gun with only my faith to defend me, would say there is a unique hostility in these times that almost seems worse to me than what we experienced in the 1960s"

If John Lewis is talking about the right to vote and voter disenfranchisement, you may be asking, what does that have to do with money in politics? The answer is two-fold. First, it turns out that the push to enact voter suppression laws has been fueled by ALEC, a consortium of large businesses who draft legislation and also fuel political campaigns and super PACs with their donations. You may recall ALEC from the recent Trayvon Martin case, as the author of the much contested "stand your ground" laws. So the issue of money in politics is literally connected with recent efforts to suppress the vote and disenfranchise Americans from participating in our political process.

The second and larger connection is that it is precisely disenfranchisement that makes the issue of money in politics the issue of our day. Not simply because of the voter ID laws sweeping the nation, but because money in politics doesn't just disenfranchise those targeted by these laws, it disenfranchises us all. Furthermore, the disenfranchisement goes beyond just voting rights, it literally affects every single issue, on the right and the left, from the deficit to global climate change.

The great movements in our history all helped us to move beyond a great sticking point as a nation. Until these great problems were addressed, we couldn’t move forward as a nation. All of our great movements made us greater as a nation and truer to our ideals. I would argue that the great movements in our nation's history had several commonalities.

1. They Made Us Greater Than We Were Before
If you look at the issue of slavery, or Women's Suffrage, or the civil rights movement and you put yourself in that time, you see that these terrible issues held us back as a nation. Not until these injustices were reversed could we move ahead as a nation. Not until we acknowledged the value of each and every person among us could we truly be the great nation we longed to be. So long as these injustices persisted, our nation was literally less than it was capable of being.

2. Moving Closer To The Government Of, By, and For The People
Although the founding fathers made many difficult and arguably terrible compromises, such as counting slaves as 2/3 of a person and failing to give women the right to vote, we know that the vision for our nation was to create a government "of the people, by the people and for the people". Lawrence Lessig notes that in the Federalist Papers, the founders spoke of making the government dependent upon "the people alone". It is based on this vision that we as a nation were ultimately able to grow. We moved closer to fulfilling this vision by abolishing slavery. We moved closer to fulfilling this vision when we extended the vote to women. We moved closer still when we fought for equal protection under the law for all of our people. Imperfect as it has been, our history has been the story of a nation moving closer and closer to a government of [all] people, by [all] people, and for [all] people.

3. Liberty and Justice For All
Our revolution was about freeing ourselves of oppression from the ruling elite, from the royalty of England. We also fought to secure the rights and freedoms for all who have been "endowed by their creator," and we made this idea the foundation of our nation. The great movements to follow would continue this tradition of securing and extending liberty and freedom to individuals, minorities and those marginalized in our society. Our nation, through all of it's struggles, has always been about striving to expand liberty and to extend these freedoms to more people than the previous generations had done.

Using this framework we can see that money in politics is about the very same fight. We only need to look at the state of our nation, at the gridlock in our government, at the petty squabbles, at the rampant filibusters, at the birthers, at the debt ceiling debacle and a myriad of other examples to see that we truly have become much less than we are capable of as a nation. Only by fixing this problem can we become greater than we were before.

It's glaringly obvious that a system that views money as speech, and corporations as people will fail to be dependent on the "people alone." Such a system enfranchises the ruling elite, the monied royalty of our society, while simultaneously disenfranchising everyday Americans. Such a system enfranchises non-people, multi-national corporations, with the same rights as the citizens of our nation. In this way we weaken the power and liberty of the people for whom we sought to “establish a more perfect union.”

All of the previous struggles were fights to establish freedoms or extend freedoms that had not yet been attained. In this way, our current struggle is somewhat different in that we are engaged in a fight to restore freedoms we have lost and to secure freedoms we are in danger of losing.

The struggle to get money out of politics is different than previous movements in another way. Previous movements sought to establish the promise of our nation to segments of our society who had systematically been denied their rights and freedoms. Our current struggle seeks not to extend rights to a particular group, but rather to each and every man, woman and child of every race, color, creed, and religious belief who are all systematically being denied their rights and freedoms.

The establishment of money as speech and corporations as people disenfranchises us all. If we reflect back on the fact offered up at the beginning of this article, we can see this in striking relief. Just 200 Americans are determining the direction of our current election cycle, and therefore, the direction of our nation. Two hundred Americans, that's just .0000063 percent, get to make their voices heard more loudly, more clearly, more frequently, and more pervasively than the remaining 300 million of us.

Congressman Lewis goes on to say that "we need a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas". I like to say that we need to decide whether we want to be a nation of ideas or a nation of influence. In a recent show, This American Life covered the issue of money in politics. They offered up two compelling points on the power of influence:

1. A study of the American Jobs Creation Act by Raquel Alexander at the University of Kansas revealed that lobbyists working on the bill were able to achieve a 22,000% return on their clients' investment of lobbying dollars.

2. They noted in a case study of a 2010 House race that we now live in an era where a media sneak attack by one wealthy donor in the last days of an election can swing that election.

Reflecting on these two points, does this seem like a vibrant democracy to you? Does it seem that we have become a nation of ideas or have we instead become a nation of influence?

The issue of money in politics affects us all. Each and every American. All parties, all political philosophies. Yet in this hyper-partisan environment I hesitate to note what our President has to say about times like these. In a recent speech, President Obama noted "we can define our lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond."

From our Revolution, to every great movement in our nation's history, we have always responded. How will we choose to define ourselves now? Will we choose to paddle hard back to shore or will we be carried away by the raging torrent of money that is flooding our political system?

Reader Comments


  1. By Linda Brewster at Excellent article, Jamie! I particularly liked your reflection that "200 Americans get to make their voices heard more loudly, more clearly, more frequently, and more pervasively than the remaining 300 million of us". And hope you won't mind my borrowing your "raging torrent of money" metaphor!
  2. By jarret wolfman at you had me right up until you started talking about corporate personhood. :( i know it's an easy trap to fall into because it just sounds so good - corporations are not people! - but i'd much rather you mentioned public campaign financing, lobbying reform and the end of the revolving door instead. did you ever actually read this article ? i don't know if they're right (especially their proposed article three solution) but if corporate personhood has nothing to do with citizens united (as many have already admitted) much less getting money out of politics then we need to refocus. it's not about corporations anyway. it's about the people behind the corporations. let's focus on them. :)
  3. By jarret wolfman at hmmm. it seems to have deleted the url. let's try again. :)
  4. By Jamie Kemmerer at It is an interesting piece. However, one person arguing that corporate personhood is not a relevant part of this fight does not undo the overwhelming number of experts who argue that it does.

    In addition, Justice Stevens only a few days ago underscored how it does when he said "it will be necessary to explain why the First Amendment provides greater protection to the campaign speech of some non-voters".

    Finally, arguing over this kind of thing is a kind of splitting hairs that is not helpful. If in the end corporate personhood is not the issue that will be fine. But at this early stage of the fight it's best that we don't rule anything out. All options should be on the table and we should be sure to include as many contributors to the problem as necessary.

    As David Cobb and others have said, we'll only get one shot a Constitutional Amendment so it will have to be right.

    In short, don't miss the forest for the corporate personhood tree.

    Regarding public campaign financing and lobbying reform, I cover these in other articles on the site...I'm with you!
  5. By Ginny Webster at I believe that the Citizens United decision is merely symptomatic of a far greater threat to this country: "The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy in this country."

    During her husband's first campaign for the Presidency, during an interview with 60 minutes ( I think), Hillary Clinton spoke of "The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy in America."

    Like many others, I suspect, my reaction to tht statement was something along the lines of "come again, the what?"

    At that time, I didn't have the first clue as to what she was talking about, except, that I did have some sort of nagging recognition, that I thought those on the Right had put Bill Clinton squarely in their cross-hairs.

    Now that I am several years older, quite a bit wiser, and much more experienced--all because I made the decision several years ago, to set about educating myself on what the heck Hillary was talking about!

    Now that I've done so, I have come to the inescapable conclusion, that Hilliary Clinton was dead accurate, when she made what seemed to me at the time like a slightly hyperbolic statement.

    Now that I've actually become educated on what really is "the vast Right Wing Conspiracy" in this country, which, in reality, is actually being financed by a small group of Oligarchs--it scares the ever-livin bejeezus out of me!
    And to coin a term I'm sure they had a hand in creating--I plan to do whatever is necessary to "take my country BACK!"

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