The Greatest Threat to American Democracy


We live in interesting times. The other day, I had a sudden craving for my favorite Chinese fix : Szechuan Salt & Pepper Shrimp. Unfortunately, very few local Chinese restaurants offer this. So, I did what I usually do when I can’t find something I’m craving for in a restaurant. I decided to make it at home. After a Google search and reading several versions of the recipe I found that it requires a relatively hard to find ingredient, Szechuan Peppercorn, the highly aromatic spice that gives the recipe it’s distinctive flavor. Armed with a picture of it on my phone, I visited my local Asian Supermarket where a few minutes of wandering down the aisles and enlisting help from other customers led me to the coveted spice. I returned home with a small bag of it, in time to prepare my favorite food.

In many ways, I am grateful to be living in the twenty first century. I can expect to live much longer than my ancestors. Diseases which were considered fatal and incurable a few decades ago can be easily cured today, at least for those who can afford the treatment. Distances that took months to navigate in the past can be conquered in hours now. We can heat our homes without having to scavenge for wood, video chat with our friends living half a world away. If we need to learn about something we can do so from the comfort of our homes.

And, I can make an authentic Szechuan dish whenever I wish to.

And yet, life is far less idyllic, far less utopian than it was a generation ago. As we solve one problem, another creeps up. Old issues resurface in various guises, civilization seems to go around in cycles, as Foucault conjectured.

We read of meaningless violence every day, to the extent where we now come to expect it as a part of life. Children being harmed in schools. Worshipers in churches. We hear stories of comfortable retirement from past generations, but are not convinced if we will achieve that. We see the homeless, and others in poverty. We see middle class families facing bankruptcy, being denied available medical treatment due to lack of insurance coverage. We see our prisons fill up with meaningless and preventable incarcerations. We see the rising cost of education and the diminishing returns of a college degree. And, we hear the war drums marching on.

Given the plethora of issues our generation faces today, is it possible to pick one of these to be the greatest, the most consequential? Isn’t it true that the importance of an issue is relative to the amount of grief it causes to its sufferers, and therefore varies from constituency to constituency? To the unemployed, isn’t unemployment the biggest issue? To the woman who wants to choose, isn’t the right to reproductive choice the most important? To the person suffering without insurance coverage isn’t affordable medical insurance of supreme importance?

The most appealing aspect of a democracy is that it is a system of government where citizens solve their own problems. Sometimes they do it directly, and at other times indirectly. In Athens, the first democracy of the Western world, citizens would gather in a public place and debate a problem, and then use the process of voting to choose among the various proposed solutions. In modern times we choose our representatives to form a government who in turn debate and use other democratic processes to solve our problems.

Or, at least we hope so.

Given this framework, any problem can be solved using the democratic process. We simply need to vote for a representative who we feel will represent our issues, and once the representative gets elected through majority voting we expect her to work for us. And, given this assumption, all the problems that a society faces seem solvable, at least in theory, given a democratic framework.

What happens when the democratic framework itself is under attack? When we are no longer able to elect representatives who we feel will represent us, but see our representatives being chosen by the wealthy and the influential? What happens when ‘one person one vote’ is no longer the truth, rather, it is ‘one dollar one vote.’

That is the mother of all issues we face today, because it robs us of the very process that we use to solve issues. It is an issue that is not a threat to a particular constituency, but to all of American democracy. The role that money plays in our system today to influence the outcome of elections results in depriving the citizens of the influence that they, rightfully, should instead have. And, money elects representatives who. help the moneymakers make even more money, who in turn grow more powerful and continue to influence the elections even more, and the cycle perpetuates, leaving ordinary citizens in the dust.

To be fair, money has always played a role in elections. It is utopian to imagine an electoral process completely free of the influences of the wealthy. However, until recently, we have had common sense laws that limited this influence. We had laws in place that placed sensible limits on how much the wealthy, the corporations and. special interest groups could spend to ensure their candidates of choice get elected. An example of such a common sense law is the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

This sensible system of restraint came tumbling down six years ago, when five justices of the Supreme court sided with Citizens United to rewrite campaign contribution laws of the country. In one stroke of the pen these justices ushered in an era of unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and super-PACs, the vehicles of the wealthy. This single-handed assault on democracy has resulted in its greatest defacement that our generation has ever seen.

Citizens United vs FEC (2010) was the greatest example of a legal circus in recent history. In an unashamed display of judicial law making the five conservative justices of the Supreme Court banded together with the conservative lobbying group to overrule decades old rulings that had prohibited some forms of campaign contributions by corporations ( Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003)) while partially overturning the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 as unconstitutional. The ruling vastly exceeded the request of the plaintiff and was much broader and expansive than what the original complaint required. It was truly a case of judicial legislation. In the process the majority opinion changed hands from Chief Justice Roberts to Justice Kennedy as it became broader. The drama required two sessions of oral arguments.

The argument that the court used to overturn the previous rulings and invalidate the campaign finance law was that any limitation on campaign finance violated the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech guarantee and was thus unconstitutional. It maintained that the First Amendment guarantees any corporation the freedom to spend as much money it wished to influence the outcome of an election. In doing so, it asserted two things : 1) that money equates to free speech, and 2) that corporations are equivalent to human beings and enjoy the same protections of the First Amendment.

Now, one cannot come up with a finer example of distortion of constitutional interpretation, of judicial activism and of total disregard for common sense in law than what was displayed by the majority justices in this case. First, they said that money is free speech, that spending money is equivalent to speaking one’s mind and thus protected by the constitution. Living things express themselves in many ways : dogs bark, cats meow, humans speak. There are also non-verbal ways of expression, using body language, smiling, crying, sulking, and through creative endeavors like music, art etc. All of these are innate and natural. Money is not. It is a construct of society, an artificial one that allows us to navigate our day to day life. We had free speech and free expression before society invented money.

Individuals have more or less the same capacity to express themselves in basic terms. All we need to do is to open our mouth and say what we are thinking, or make a face, or wear a t-shirt that says something. The poorest amongst us is as capable in this respect as the richest, and likewise, the framers of our constitution understood this and enshrined the clause to protect us as an equalizing measure. Protecting an individual’s right to free-expression seemed to them as something natural and something which gave every member of society more or less similar rights.

This equation changes when money is equated to free speech. Individuals are no longer equal, a great disparity in their capacity to express themselves, through their ability to spend money, emerges. The billionaire now is a million times more capable of expressing herself than the person who only has a thousand bucks in her bank account. Our founding fathers must be turning in their graves to see their words being interpreted thus.

The second abuse that majority justices in this case perpetrated was to assert that corporations have the same protections under the constitution as individuals. I have two cats I adopted as kittens when they were eight weeks old — a boy and a girl. I often talk to them, I take care of them as I would my children. For all practical purposes I treat them as individuals. Many Americans believe that they will be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. While I do not believe in heaven, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. I can totally understand if you treat your pet as a human being, I do too. Heck, I can even understand if you feel your houseplant is human, but no stretch of imagination will convince me that a corporation, whose sole motive is to make money for its owners is a human being and should enjoy the same rights and protections.

The justices in their majority opinion said that since a corporation is an association of individuals it should enjoy the same protections as an individual. This logic is highly flawed. An association of constituents. is an aggregate entity and it does not assume the identity of its constituents. The identity of the aggregate is not the same as the identity of its members, and thus cannot be treated equally. There are many examples in case law where associations of individuals are treated differently than the individuals themselves. For example, a marriage is an association of two individuals, however, it is treated differently for tax purposes than the two members of said marriage would be if they filed. as single individuals. The law treats the association as a different entity than the individuals who constitute it.

The ramifications of the verdict of Citizens United vs FEC 2010 is more damaging to our. democracy than any other current threat. It enables billionaires like the Koch brothers and their corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to support their candidates of choice and to defeat candidates they don’t like. They can spend it in any way they like : run TV ads, phone campaigns, engage in lobbying, organize rallies, fund litigation… They can make sure anyone they want wins. And the people they support are obligated to them, owe them, to work in their favor after they are elected, crafting legislation that will help the rich and make policy decisions that will benefit the wealthy. This makes the wealthy even wealthier, and they can elect even more politicians to their liking and the cycle perpetuates. This comes at the expense of the common citizen, who have virtually no power today to affect elections when pitted against the money of the wealthy. No wonder the income inequality in America has reached unprecedented heights never before seen since the era of the Great Depression. The top 1% by wealth today controls more than 20% of America’s money. The last time this happened was in 1928.

It is not easy to fix this problem. Overturning Citizens United to limit the influence of the wealthy in the electoral process can happen in only one of two ways. When vacancies arise, a President may appoint justices in the Supreme Court who will be willing to overturn this should a suitable case ever reach the court. It is widely believed that as many of four justices may retire from the Supreme Court in the next four years giving the next President an opportunity to appoint their replacements.

The other way is create a constitutional amendment. This will require the support of the President, the Congress as well as the State Legislatures.

Both are difficult processes where success is not guaranteed, however, we will need to start somewhere. Unless we can fix the way our representatives get elected there is little hope that any of the issues that affect us will be addressed. As long as our representatives feel the support of the wealthy is all that matters they will keep on working for the wealthy only. The issues of the common individual will never be addressed. That is what is happening in America today.

The only way to fix this is to elect representatives who want to fix it, and the only way they will want to do it is if they do not feel they owe allegiance to the wealthy, rather to the common citizens. This cannot happen if we elect people who are too close to the rich and the corporations, who are too friendly with them and who benefit from them.

Looking at the spectrum of Presidential candidates today offers a bleak picture. The Republicans, of course, owe their allegiance to money. That is part of their political philosophy, but, the picture on the Democratic side is not pretty either.

The leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has deep roots in the wealthy and powerful community. She is the darling of Wall Street, of Media barons, of Big Pharma and many other wealthy corporations and individuals. Not only is she personally friendly with these people but she has in the recent past spoken at their venues. It his hard to imagine she will do much that will harm the interests of these friends and patrons of hers if she were to be elected as President.

The only candidate who has consistently spoken up about the usurping of the system by the wealthy and about economic inequality in America is Bernie Sanders. True to his commitment, his support is totally grass-roots. His campaign does not depend on the Super-PACs created by the wealthy and the powerful. He does not owe any allegiance to them. His voting record in Congress has consistently shown him to be the champion of the common American. Income inequality lies at the forefront of his campaign agenda.

Let us take our democracy back from the wealthy. Vote for Bernie Sanders.