While driving around and running some errands last week, my nearly three-year-old son started yelling in an effort to interrupt the conversation his parents were having. It was cute for about five seconds; then it became obnoxious. He continued to yell, completely ruining anyone’s ability to have a conversation. In that moment, however, my mind started thinking about McCutcheon v. FCC.
McCutcheon was a Supreme Court case handed down last week. In its decision, a 5-4 majority ruled that the so-called “aggregate” limits on political donations from an individual were an unconstitutional violation of a person’s right to free speech. (The Court left intact the federal limits on a person’s donation directly to an individual.)
McCutcheon, along with other recent Supreme Court decisions, share a theme: disenfranchisement. For approximately thirty years in this country, income inequality has accelerated. Along with this economic disenfranchisement have come a number of laws and cases seemingly designed to inhibit the ability of certain demographics to vote. The electoral disenfranchisement continues with cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon, which allow more money to enter the federal elections process.
The Supreme Court based its decision in part on the premise that “money equals speech,” so to limit the amount of money someone can spend is akin to limiting their free speech.
But money is not speech. It is a wonderful, neutral tool that can amplify your message to a broader audience. The problem with McCutcheon is that the Court secretly values the free speech rights of those 600 individuals who actually hit the federal aggregate cap more than the free speech rights of the majority of the country, whose voices are drowned out by the flood of cash in the system.
Perhaps the justices would do well to revisit the words of Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Money is awesome, and while it can buy elections, there’s one thing money cannot buy – democratic legitimacy. If these trends of economic and political disenfranchisement continue, then people will feel that their government does not and cannot represent them. This happened once already with Great Britain, and it dangerously undermines the success of our country’s experiment in democracy.
When my son was screaming in the backseat, I had a few choices: stop trying to speak, as the point of conversation was lost; continue to speak over him (almost impossible against a set of toddler lungs), or; pull the car over, discipline my son, and remind him of who’s really in charge. It seems that, as an electorate, we are being offered similar choices. So what will it be?