How Big Money Is Corrupting Our Democracy

Posted: January 7, 2016
Updated: January 13, 2016

Speech delivered at the First Congregational Church of Madison, Wisconsin on January 6, 2016. (Download audio.)

Thanks, Tim Kehl, for inviting me today, and for all your work over the decades for peace and justice. It’s nice see old friends here, including Helen Capellaro, who used to work with me at The Progressive, and Kathleen Day, who used to feed me every Wednesday night when I first came to town and when I got to know her husband, Sam Day, who had worked at The Progressive before me.

Thanks everyone for coming, and congrats on your group, 55 Alive.

Let me blunt, if you don’t mind. I prefer the plain truth to sugar-coating, so here it is: We no longer live in a functioning democracy.

As Jimmy Carter told Thom Hartmann six months ago, we’ve become an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

Two years ago, two political science professors, one from Princeton and the other from Northwestern (Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page) studied 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and what they found was startling: “It makes very little difference what the general public thinks…They have little or no independent influence on policy at all. … In our findings, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

Matt Rothschild speaking on how big money corrupts democracy.

Who does rule?

The top 1 percent and the business lobby, by and large.

And how do they rule? By the money they give during elections, and by the lobbying they do on Capitol Hill and in the state capitols.

Let’s look at who is giving the most this election season. Just 158 families have given almost 50% of the money spent so far in this election, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Of those 158 families, 138 are Republican—that’s 87 percent.

These billionaires are buying candidates like they buy horses for the Kentucky Derby. There’s no guarantee that their favorite candidate won’t trip out of the gate, like Rick Perry or a certain governor from Wisconsin, but they’re in the race.

And that’s the problem. The billionaires are picking the candidates, not us, the citizens.

Even if those 158 families were split right down the middle, Republicans vs Democrats, or conservatives versus liberals, this would not be OK. Our elections are not supposed to be wrestling matches between billionaires on one side who are conservative and billionaires on the other who are liberal. We the people, you and I and the 320 million people in this country, are supposed to decide who gets elected, not a tiny handful.

But our system of money in politics has reduced the citizenry to mere spectators, and often blindfolded spectators at that, since increasingly the money that is being tossed around is dark money, untraceable money.

And the investments pay off.

The pharmaceutical industry, for instance, gives tons of money during election time, and they then deploy an army of lobbyists in Washington: more than two lobbyists for every one elected official in Congress. And they prevail: That’s why our government, through Medicare, is not allowed to bargain for volume discounts with the pharmaceutical companies.

Or take Wall Street, where President Obama got a lot of his money and Hillary Clinton gets a lot of hers. Is it a mere coincidence that Obama bailed out the banks and didn’t make them reduce the principal on everyone’s mortgage or impose a moratorium on foreclosures?

Is it a secret why they’re still allowed to trade in derivatives and other ridiculous gambles?

No, it’s not a secret: Dick Durbin, the Illinois Senator, made it quite clear: “The banks own the place,” he said.

Here in Wisconsin, every day I see legislation flash across my screen that is not being demanded by the people but by a very narrow group of vested interests.

Just yesterday, the Republicans were introducing bills to allow landowners on lakes to do more dredging, and to allow developers to destroy more wetlands.

In the last session, they passed bills:

To allow pipeline companies to exercise eminent domain and seize property.

To allow banks to offer low introductory variable rate loans, the kind that caused the financial meltdown, if you’ve seen “The Big Short.” This one was introduced by Terry Katsma, himself a banker, and backed by the Wisconsin Banking Association.

To allow payday lenders to sell more products to desperate consumers.

To allow people to carry switchblades.

To shield private campgrounds from lawsuits.

To give businesses a pass the first time they submit false tax returns, and to pay lower penalty if they’re fined later.

Even to allow more lead in paint! There was a big public demand for that one, I can assure you.

And now it’s going to get worse.

It’s going to get worse because of the new campaign finance law that was passed in the middle of the night last month.

This new campaign finance law greatly increases the influence of the wealthiest individuals and richest corporations over our election process.

It doubles the amount of direct contributions so that now you (well, really not you) can give $20,000 to your favorite candidate for governor. And who has that kind of money to throw around?

It allows individuals to give unlimited donations to political parties and campaign committees.

It allows corporations, for the first time ever, to give to political parties.

It allows coordination between candidates and outside groups, which will render meaningless any way to limit campaign contributions or to provide disclosure.

And it deletes the requirement that donors disclose the name of their employers.

Our democracy will be drowning in a sea of dark money, and we’ll have no way of knowing who is splattering our screens with mud during Election Time, or what goodies those secret splatterers will be getting in return.

In passing this law, they were writing into the statutes the decision of our corrupt Wisconsin Supreme Court, which decided in July and reaffirmed on Dec. 2 that the First Amendment requires the state to permit coordination between candidates and outside issue-ad groups.

This is a ludicrous decision that is 180 degrees from what the US Supreme Court has said over the last 40 years on campaign finance.

In Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, the Court said: “The absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent . . . alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo.”

In Citizens United in 2010 the Court said: “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with the candidate.”

That’s why it’s so important that our DA, Ismael Ozaunne, and John Chisholm in Milwaukee, and Larry Nelson in Iowa County have petitioned the state supreme court to become a party to this case so they can appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now let’s see how corrupt our state high court is, since it invited them to petition to join the case. Now will it rescind that invitation and reject their petition? That would be scandalous, but they bathe in scandal.

There’s a wholesale assault on democracy in Madison right now, waged not only by Gov. Scott Walker but also by Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and by the Wisconsin Supreme Court the corporate powers behind them.

The fact is, we’re in the midst of a counterrevolution right now.

Our state has been taken over by people who don’t give a damn about democracy.

They don’t give a damn about clean and open government.

They have no respect whatsoever for the public good.

All they want to do is to aggrandize power, to grab as much as they can as fast as they can. And to reward their paymasters and their corporate crony friends, whether it’s the Koch Brothers, or ALEC, or Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. This is a sinister symbiosis.

This is happening not just in Wisconsin, but around the country. And it’s not a new problem:

Thomas Jefferson warned us 200 years ago almost to this day, when he said: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of the monied corporations.”

150 years ago, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan warned us that "there is a looming and new dark power. . . .The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economic conquests only, but for political power. For the first time really in our politics money is taking the field as an organized power. …

Well, money has really taken the field these days and it wins almost all the time.

Edward Ryan continued: “The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine:

“Which shall rule — wealth or man?

“Which shall lead — money or intellect?

“Who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?"

You know who picked up on this “feudal serf” line? Not just Fighting Bob La Follette, who fought corporate power his whole life.

No, a more recent Wisconsin politician, a Republican named former State Senator Dale Schultz. He was the Senate Majority Leader for the Republicans for a while. And when he decided not to run again, he said that many legislators have become, and these are his words, “feudal serfs for folks with a lot of money.”

People get this in their gut.

This is a bipartisan issue. The people by a huge bipartisan margin, already understand that big money plays too big a part in our political life. In a recent poll:

84 percent agreed that money has too much influence over politics.

And 80 percent of Republicans agreed with.

78 percent said money spent by outside groups in campaigns should be limited.

And 73 percent of Republicans agreed with that.

Donald Trump has talked about this problem, too: How easy it is for him to buy favors from elected officials. Hell, he got Hillary Clinton to sit in the front row of his wedding. And that’s the least of it. Usually, tycoons give money not for vanity’s sake but because they want government agencies to give them something in return. And they get it!

Bernie Sanders talks about how the system is rigged.

Elizabeth Warren talks about it.

Hillary herself talks about.

Both Hillary and Bernie are on record that they would make sure their Supreme Court appointees would vote to overturn Citizens United.

So let’s look at Citizens United for a second.

That decision said corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect this candidate or defeat that candidate. And it contained the two most naïve statements ever written in a Supreme Court decision:

“Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

And “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

What planet were those five justices living on when they came up with those whoppers?

Fortunately, people right here in Wisconsin haven’t fallen for them.

In 60 villages, towns, cities, and counties all across this state (and you should pass one in West Bend; they did it in Waukesha!), the people or their representatives have voted by overwhelming margins in favor of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to say, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money is not speech. It’s not just about overturning Citizens United; it’s about overturning 140 years of Supreme Court precedents that grant personhood to corporations.

Even in red Waukesha, it passed with 69% on April 1, 2014.

This is a movement that is happening all over the country, with sixteen states already on board. This is the fundamental solution to the problem of money in politics, and I hope I’ll live to see such an amendment pass.

I’m an impatient man. I don’t want to wait for the pendulum to swing. I want to give it a big shove in the pro-democracy direction.

As Fighting Bob La Follette put it 100 years ago, “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

We need more democracy, now, in this country.

And we need more democracy, now, right here in Wisconsin.

I do not get discouraged. I know that nothing is static, and that these guys won’t be in power forever, and that democracy surges forward unexpectedly – but especially when we give it a shove.

I’m a student of Howard Zinn’s, the great people’s historian, who chronicled these surges from below. And he once wrote:

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

One final quote:

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died two years ago, wrote a beautiful poem called “The Cure at Troy.” I’m not going to read the whole poem to you, and I don’t know it by heart.

But one line sticks out to me: He said, There are times in our lives when “hope and history rhyme.”

Let’s make hope and history rhyme again in this country, and again in Wisconsin.