The conclusion of the 2008 anti-factory farm documentary Food, Inc. was that we “vote three times a day…at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” meaning that where we spend our money on food is the most important decision we can make for transforming the food that is most available to us in America. So far as we believe this to be the case, we have also all but conceded that whoever has the most money to spend has the most transformative power in this country. The film does a great job tearing apart big agriculture for its disregard for our health and its workers and provides convincing arguments for buying locally and organic, but the underlying problem remains regardless of what produce and meats we consume. Money equals power.
It’s an ideology based around consumption that has come to consume our culture. This remains true in the arena of political campaigns as well. In February of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations to fund the broadcasting of political ads no matter how close to an election. It overturned a piece of the McCain-Feingold Act that was passed to help reform campaign financing. The non-profit, Citizens United wanted to run its film: Hillary: The Movie on television, bashing Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential run within thirty days of a primary election. A provision of the McCain-Feingold Act prohibited any corporation, for-profit or non-profit, and unions from airing a political ad within sixty days of a general election or thirty days of a primary. The Supreme Court struck down this provision of the McCain-Feingold Act by siding with Citizens United in a 5-4 decision. In essence, Citizens United opened the floodgates giving corporations carte blanche when it comes to political spending by not allowing the government to place any limits upon it.
The fallout from a decision such as this is very destructive to the voice of the voting public. It creates an even larger loophole for corporations to find ways to essentially fund candidates running for public office. The fact that corporations with their own financial interests have been engaged in politics since the advent of limited liability is nothing new. Today, though, it appears to be reaching, if it has not already reached a tipping point where corporate lobbyists are the political decision makers in America, meaning America would no longer be able to honestly call itself a democracy, but must declare itself a form of plutocracy.
Going back to the Left’s response to this dangerous trend, there also appears to be an embracing of it in an odd, roundabout way. Food, Inc. all but argues that one’s dollar is worth more than one’s vote. Buying locally, organic and limiting our factory farm meat consumption sounds like a perfectly logical reaction to the problem at hand. It seems much more logical than actually voting for candidates who will fight for that view. The slogan “Buy Locally, Think Globally” has been embraced by the Left as well. The good-natured intent here is to consider the impact your purchases are making on people in under-developed countries, perhaps with sweatshop labor or environmentally destructive business practices.
While these respectable actions can lead to much good, they also propagate the acceptance of money being the driving force behind political and social change. Yes, in order to take leaps in a positive direction regarding specific issues such as the environment and human rights “voting with one’s pocketbook” is not necessarily a bad strategy, but one must at the same time tackle the root of the problem. Congress must be pressured into reforming the way it receives campaign funding in a way that disallows conflicts of interests that have not only become blatant, but potentially dangerous to the well-being of our democracy as a whole.
Many legislators in Washington condemned the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United in February, but now in November another election has passed without the reforms necessary to outlaw the corporate financing of our representatives in government. A politician’s accountability to her constituents is required for a representative democracy to function. Until this fundamental requirement is a reality, political change will no longer come from politics.
A health care bill written with the approval of or even by members of the health care industry, an environmental bill written by the biggest polluters or a financial regulation bill written by the biggest investors are not only unsurprising, but should be expected so long as the corporation has the loudest voice in the political arena. In September, Democrats attempted to pass a campaign finance law that directly addressed areas of the McCain-Feingold bill that Citizens United overturned. In the bill were provisions that required corporations, nonprofits and unions to show how they are spending political donations and from where the money originates. The bill was passed in the House but the Senate Republican leadership quickly condemned the bill as partisan because, in their view, the bill would unfairly help Democratic candidates. The Democrats were one vote short of the sixty needed to avoid the impending Republican filibuster and the bill died and soft money continues to fund our candidates.
Even this bill included gaping loopholes for some of the most powerful K Street lobbyists. Most notably, the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club were allowed exceptions from the new disclosures the bill would have required. As the bill came closer to vote, Senate Democrats conceded more and more exceptions to Republicans in an attempt to secure enough votes to avoid the filibuster. Republicans argued, as did the Supreme Court majority in Citizens United that the disclosures the bill requires would be an infringement on the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. It should not be surprising that politicians whose elections depend on their donors have a difficult time passing a bill that places limitation on their biggest contributors hence, the expected gridlock on this issue.
There are still ways to succeed, but it might take a rethinking how we approach money’s role in regards to effecting change. The Left’s “if we can’t beat’em, join’em” strategy of synonymizing how one spends her money with supporting the political causes she supports has been helpful in making people much more conscious of the impact people’s personal choices are making on the world. Whether it be purchasing locally grown organic foods, environmental lobbyist in Washington or giant advertising campaigns supporting progressive causes, each plays a significant role in counteracting a well-funded opposition. Despite the positive steps, the act of using the opposition’s weapons against it may have an adverse impact on actually solving the problems this strategy aims to defeat. In other words, conceding that the more money one throws at a problem, the better the odds for change can be counterproductive in that this same ideology that is at the root of these problems continues to control the debate.
To avoid a complete plutocratic system, citizens must reject the plutocratic structure of our current politics. A good next step in doing this could be keeping our politicians accountable by demanding they disclose their biggest financiers and to simply not vote for candidates who refuse or are discovered to be funded by unsavory special interests. In California, voters overwhelmingly voted down Proposition 23 during this year’s midterm election, which would have rolled back the state’s landmark greenhouse gas regulations. The progressive opposition’s ads and signs focused primarily on the “Big Texas Oil Companies” who were the main financial backers of the proposition.
This same strategy should be able to be employed when considering candidates for federal office. The money train for both sides should be interrogated and voters need to have the opportunity to make these connections in order to make an informed decision in the ballot box. Exposing these connections could be a step in the direction of eventually eliminating corporate electioneering. Since the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that placing limits on the corporate funding of elections is equal to limiting the free speech of corporations and therefore unconstitutional, Congress must act for anything to change in the near future.
Until Congress is able to pass meaningful campaign finance reform, there will remain a looming threat to the credibility of our democracy and the power of a citizen’s vote. If progressives especially continue down the road of voting with their pocketbooks, they may in the end lose credibility as the biggest pocketbooks hold the most sway. That is the essence of a plutocratic government and a democracy simply cannot sustain such a reality.
Brian Kennedy is a freelance writer based out of Oakland, CA.