Toxic Money and the 2020 Elections

By: Larry J. Schweiger

As we approach the 2020 elections, American voters are being inundated with propaganda paid for by secret money sources including Russian trolls, corporate polluters, and elements of the neo-aristocracy that are overwhelmingly pro-Trump. This is a severe threat to a functioning democracy with an incompetent and corrupt President. 

Democracy has a fragile underbelly made more so by social media and the failure of the Trump administration to respond to Putin’s interventions. Even the Republican-held Senate in 2018 found millions of Russian posts aimed at promoting Trump in 2016. Since Trump is failing to address this interference as he has failed to address the pandemic adequately, our 2020 election is now increasingly about life and death for many Americans.

In perhaps the worst court decision since Bush v Gore or even the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. In the January 21, 2010 decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court embraced two flawed theories including that “money” equals “free speech” under the 1st Amendment, so campaign money cannot be restricted. Corporations are not people; they are legal structures on pieces of paper yet the high Court declared that “corporations” have personhood status under the Constitution. This flawed ruling gave corporations, including the NRA, polluters, and even International corporations sweeping, dangerous, and undue influence in elections. “This decision and the subsequent interpretations that mega-rich individuals could spend unlimited amounts of money through secret front groups channeling to super PACs has severely undercut the functioning of democracy. In American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock decision, the Supreme Court struck down a Montana ban on corporate political transactions, ruling 5 to 4 that the 2010 Citizens United ruling also applies to state and local elections.

Constitutional rights reserved for people should never have been granted to corporations. This dangerous decision by the Republican- majority in the Court extended legal protection to corporate speech. It allowed the formation of Super PACs to spend as much money as possible to alter the outcome of any election at every level of government. In doing so, the Supreme Court unleashed an unprecedented wave of undisclosed toxic money. 

During the 2018 Congressional elections, for example, $5.7 billion was spent on congressional elections. A USA TODAY analysis showed donations from ten super-rich individuals accounted for more than 20% of the money given during the mid-term elections to super PACs.  Cash from the 0.001 percenters now often overruns retail politics and small contributors. When the checks and balances between money and voters break down, America ceases to be a vibrant democracy serving more than 329 million people instead becomes an oligarchy serving about 3,000 mega-rich. Right-wing judicial activism is deliberately advancing elites, fostering minority government by, and for the corporate class.  

By legislating from the bench, something they promised not to do during Senate confirmation hearings, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court broke utterly free of logic and placed enormous and undeserved confidence on the Internet to prevent election abuses. The majority opinion stated: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations, and elected officials accountable for their positions, and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.” Voters do not know who is behind the ubiquitous advertisements, nor can a significant number discern fake news. Few know what ads are being produced by a group fronting for a libertarian billionaire or even Russia. 

The Justices voting for this travesty knew it would dramatically shift the center of power. The People for the American Way point out that “the Court’s watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—that tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified.” 

During his State of the Union on January 27, 2010, President Barack Obama warned: “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limits in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.” In a rare public rebuke to a President, Republican-appointed Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the author of the Citizen’s United majority opinion sitting in the front row of the house chamber, challenged the president by shaking his head no, and mouthing, “not true.” In light of Maria Butina’s guilty plea and the possibility of large amounts of Russian money passing through the NRA, including part or all of the untraceable $30 million from undisclosed sources, Justice Alito needs to re-evaluate his position.

Former President Jimmy Carter criticized Citizen’s United warning, “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or of electing the president., and the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. senators, and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want, and expect, and sometimes get favors for themselves after the elections over…” 

Reforms may not prevent the bribing of public officials or the manipulation of voters, but we can reduce the temptations with much-needed spending caps and timely disclosures of all donors to super PACs and C4’s. Real change will not happen until we see a turnover in the Supreme Court or until the Constitution is amended to make it clear that corporations are not people, and that money is not free speech.

The right to speak and the right to be heard are two vastly different things. If free speech is equated to unlimited spending, then the right to be heard is restrained by inadequate financial resources to access television or to populate social media with paid ads. With this flawed interpretation, poor people have little or no free speech because they have no money. Their small voice is crushed under the weight of massive spending.

In an unprecedented move, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate prevented Judge Garland, a well-qualified and widely respected moderate, from receiving a single hearing. Now McConnell is running a 2020 re-election video showing a clip of President Barack Obama urging him to give Garland a fair hearing, along with McConnell’s outrageous response, “It is the president’s constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate’s constitutional right to act as a check.” The video includes Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh being sworn in with a Fox News anchor recounting how McConnell jammed these nominees through the Senate. 

Through Senate rule changes, Trump and McConnel have been able to stack thirty percent of the Federal bench with “corporatists” and often unqualified Trump judges. The Supreme Court has five ideological “corporatist” justices who will continue to have a profound impact on the functioning of our government. 

Our vote matters this November as never before. The 2020 election will determine the future of our courts and the future of America. In voting for a President, we are also voting for the future of the Court system. It is a safe bet that we will witness even greater amounts of toxic money. With a flood of political advertisements and social posts coming to our screens, voters must ask, who speaks? And why?

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