By Matthew DeMello
Photo courtesy of Mark Fischer.
This week, the political elasticity of the G.O.P. is being “tested”, according to The New York Times, by a bill that members of the social left consider a huge step forward in the modern-day Civil Rights struggle. The ENDA, or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that is currently making its way through the Senate as of the time of this writing, will ensure that any discrimination of an employee on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
The legislative success of the proposed law so far supports my theory that the American LGBT movement has quickly gained tremendous, nearly unstoppable momentum in recent elections. Perhaps more so than standing against any other platform, including immigration reform (another maxim gleaned from the consequential 2012 presidential election cycle), does vocally opposing gay and lesbian rights appear to be an objective electoral mistake in the national arena.
Noting recent progress in LGBT rights and polling gains on marijuana legalization, some members of the media have insisted (somewhat unjustly, I would add) that we no longer live in a center-right nation. In terms of social progress, that may be true, but for the fiscal left, so to speak, there is a more dangerous, corrupt demand for individual rights taking place right now in the Supreme Court.
The case McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission has been touted as a form of “Super Citizens United”, referencing the infamous 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Through this case, the court eradicated designations between money and free speech when it came to political contribution limits by corporations, lobbying groups, and labor unions.
The Citizens United decision is considered primarily responsible for bringing about the rise of ‘super’ political action committees (or “super PACs”) — shady organizations who bankroll political ad campaigns of nearly every sort. They function financially in ways that have been criticized for promoting money laundering. Throughout the 2012 election season, the left (myself included) decried the existence of these committees at every turn, and criticized the Supreme Court decision that gave them life.
In 2012, President Barack Obama came just shy of becoming the first presidential candidate in history, nevermind an incumbent, to win an election while being outspent by his opponent. His victory and others caused many on the right to deem the consequences of Citizens United and the general efficacy of super PACs moot. Those on the left who may have had reservations about the president’s re-election, however, could at least sleep easier knowing that money wasn’t the sole deciding factor in selling the American people on its federal executive.
Sure, the right’s “dark money” peddlers may have overestimated the influence (and sometimes repellent effects) of campaign advertisements, but the horror stories of corruption at the hands of Citizens United are equally well documented, if only under publicized. (I could go on forever about these under-reported stories, and how the left is now trying to take advantage of these corrosive organizations, but just so I do not break my word limit, I’ll recommend readers the following sources and stories.)
Given that backdrop, Republican businessman and passionate political campaign donor Shaun McCutcheon has arrived in Washington to extend the “liberties” offered by the Citizens United decision beyond corporations and unions and on to We the People. He is so passionate about his campaign contributions that he thinks there should be no limits on what he or anyone else can contribute to a candidate or political party in any election cycle.
This video (along with an accompanying and helpful guide from The Washington Post) breaks down the specifics of the constitutional legalese throughout the case, along with the historical roots of campaign financing in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. In short, McCutcheon is suing the Federal Election Commission under the banner of the First Amendment, just as in Citizens United, for the infringement on his constitutional freedom.
I won’t put freedom in quotation marks here (even though many reading this op-ed may, like me, not consider monetary transactions of any sort equivalent to political speech) because that’s exactly what McCutcheon and his breed of libertarians consider capital-F Freedom. With respect to rational-appearing adults with whom I couldn’t have a greater discrepancy of opinion, it seems condescending to treat a concept as abstract that they see as so concrete.
Though if you firmly believe in a separation between money and politics in governance, it’s easy to think of McCutcheon as Gaston, the villain from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — he’s got all the looks of a knight in shining armor with all the moral trappings of an opportunistic douche bag. You could go as far as calling him the Don Quixote of campaign finance, just considering how ridiculously far constitutional review of campaign finance has come in the Roberts Court.
But there’s a big difference: Don Quixote wasn’t actually hurting anyone (besides himself) by fighting windmills.
So McCutcheon may honestly believe that he’s saving a damsel in distress (that being, his Freedom) but the likely ends of his motivations couldn’t be more transparent, or any less sinister. Naturally, it may help his efforts, at least in the court of public opinion, if he had no horse in the race. Though, it’s surprising that no one on the right fit the bill of independent third party activist, given the ideological streak of modern libertarianism in the G.O.P.
On the other hand, what else could McCutcheon want these Freedoms for but to exert greater influence over every strata of American governance simply by being a well-monied individual? Surely not to merely ‘keep it simple’ for everyone else, as his recent op-ed for Politico would suggest:
“I understand the courts have decided that donating a maximum amount to each candidate or committee won’t cause political corruption. But what makes no sense to me, and what my case is solely about, are the aggregate limits. Somehow, I can give the individual limit, now $2,600, to 17 candidates without corrupting the system. But as soon as I give that same amount to an 18th candidate, our democracy is suddenly at risk. Only politicians in Washington could come up with something so absurd. Think about it: If a $2,600 contribution won’t corrupt 17 candidates, then the same size contribution wouldn’t corrupt 18 … or 28 … or 38.”
His stated disregard for paperwork doesn’t accommodate even the remote possibility of conflicts of interest among elected officials. While this fact of politics has been documented since well before the Roman Republic, in the eyes of McCutcheon, corruption is merely a minor issue that, as he understands, the courts settled some time ago. Oh, and it only benefits people who have the money to convince politicians to see the world like they do, and like he seems to.
Just don’t be deceived by appearances as this is not an argument of doing away with one or two meaningless caps on campaign contributions. This is a case that, through pin-pointing one ‘arbitrary’ limit, will affect whether or not such limits should be in place at all. Thus, there’s no mistaking the underhanded belief at play here that is held by closet oligarchs, like McCutcheon, who question such limits: That capital should guide every interest — and public interest is no exception.
If there’s any sure-fire sign that McCutcheon is the purist ideologue he claims to be, it’s that his political naivety rivals that of anyone dumb enough to believe his anti-bureaucratic alibi.
As of now, the G.O.P.’s latest holy war on Obamacare through government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations has left them in far less favorable standing with the larger businesses interests of Wall Street who bankroll both political parties. Obviously, that may not have been the case when McCutcheon first sought litigation. But in the advent of increased interest in so-called dark money groups by the left, if campaign contribution limits between individuals and corporations were to evaporate tomorrow, then the conservative movement could suffer drastically, especially in regards to social policy.
So as a champion of the social progress we’re currently seeing in Congress, perhaps I should be less critical of his efforts if I’m thinking pragmatically. But, I guess like Shaun McCutcheon, I’m a purist. Even if it advances the sort of policy I would like to see in place for the short term, there is nothing good that can come of treating money with the same jurisprudence as our freedom of speech.
Especially when now, perhaps more so than any other time since the Great Depression, could some of us speak much louder than others if we did.