The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding political spending by corporations and unions was more than just a blow to democracy. It was a blow to states’ rights. All across the country, lawmakers are scrambling to determine the extent to which their local campaign financing laws are still legal. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens derided the ruling for not only striking down a large portion of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act, but also because “it compounds the offense by implicitly striking down a great many state laws as well.”
Here in New Mexico, pending legislation limiting the contributions that businesses, lobbyist and state contractors could make to political campaigns is likely dead before its first committee hearing. No longer do New Mexicans have a say in how much influence big money can have in state elections. Even President Obama, in a highly unusual move for a sitting president, criticized the decision in his weekly address, saying, “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest.”
Cities and states across the country have been moving toward implementing so-called “clean elections” by allowing candidates the option of accepting public financing in lieu of private contributions. Albuquerque has adopted public financing for city offices, and the rest of the state should follow suit. While public financing is still an excellent way to keep campaigns free from the more direct influence of money, the Supreme Court’s decision somewhat circumvents this effort by allowing special interests to take their biases and agendas straight to the people. The ruling allows corporations to “buy” candidates with promises of positive campaign ads to help elect them or threats of an unlimited stream of attack ads to help defeat them. Either way, the big losers are the people.
What the nation’s highest court has effectively done is allowed our elections to be commercialized.
What the nation’s highest court has effectively done is allowed our elections to be commercialized. Just as corporate America deluges us daily with messages about what products to buy and which services to hire, this decision will allow the corporate marketing of candidates. Instead of: “This product will make you sexier / happier / more wealthy,” it will be: “This candidate is (or is not) sexier / smarter / more likable.” This shilling of candidates will most certainly make the American political landscape even more virulent and acrimonious than it already is.
Political campaigns should be about issues. For those seeking another term, elections should also be about promises kept or broken. Candidates should not win or lose because of money, or who looks best on TV and has the snappiest sound bites. Candidates should be about ideals, integrity and fidelity to the common good. The more money we allow into the campaign process, the more that process is twisted and the more “the good of the many” is overrun in pursuit of "gain for the few."
Likewise, governing should not be about personal power. Governing, as it was envisioned by our founding fathers, should be about empowering the people. That is done by investing each individual, rich or poor, with an equal voice: their vote. The death knell for democracy will sound the day we allow money to become more powerful than the vote. This Supreme Court decision brings that day a little closer.
I am not ready to throw my hands up in defeat, however. I believe the people still wield the ultimate power in this country when it comes to our statehouses and our nation’s Capitol, our governors’ mansions and our White House. Democracy requires vigilance, but I believe New Mexicans are up to the task. Now we must do more than fight for our right to decide who represents us in Santa Fe and in Washington. We must fight for the right to make our decisions without the cacophony of those who would influence our votes to further their own ends.