The corrupting influence of unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed sources is undermining our democracy. The Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision determined that corporations were persons and any limitations on corporate funding of elections would be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
In its decision, the Court indicated that Congress could legislatively mandate the disclosure of the source of such funds. The floodgate was open with the expectation that transparency would at least provide information so that a voter might weigh the message against the sponsoring interest.
In determining credibility, one is always expected to consider the source. That principle not only applies in court but is also fundamental to the making of sound judgments. The economic interest of commercial sponsors is obvious as are the paid endorsements of athletes and celebrities.
Being the chief beneficiary of unlimited funds, the Republicans recently killed an attempt by Democrats in the Senate to pass disclosure legislation that would have required that funding sources be identified. If you have the money, there is now no limit in a political ad on what is said and no requirement to identify who said it.
A cloak of anonymity covers the exaggerations, distortions, half-truths, and lies that bombard a shell-shocked electorate during campaigns. It is estimated that a billion dollars will be spent, most of it on advertising, in this presidential election.
Whatever happened to transparency? That noble concept was also for sale. Big Money was able to buy the message and hide the messenger.
Capitalism and democracy are in conflict. Unless restrained by elected officials with the integrity and courage to resist, capitalism will erode the independence of institutions duty bound to limit the influence of money on the process.
The device of “checks and balances” was designed to limit the power of one branch of government over another. Less evident but equally important was the application of that concept to outside forces inclined to subvert government to their own purposes.
Human nature being what it is, it should be obvious that individuals and institutions will try to manipulate government in their own interests. It is the way we are. Acknowledging that reality, those concerned with the common good must be vigilant to guard against unwarranted intrusions that undermine the system.
Like water allowed to flow freely, money will find the cracks and fissures that exist in any structure no matter how carefully designed. Right now there is high water in the basement and no sign of a pump.
We are in danger of money becoming the narcotic and elected officials the addicts or potential addicts, dependent upon it to retain power – the compelling “high” that defines their ambition.
Communism was an obvious threat to our freedom. However, capitalism is not an unmixed blessing. While its promise of freedom and prosperity has served this country well, like everything else, too much of a good thing often carries the seeds of destruction.
Unless we find a way to limit the influence of money on the governance of our great country, I am afraid we will evolve into a plutocracy. We may look like a democracy but real power will be exercised by a relatively small group of super rich individuals.
We need more elected officials motivated by something other than the ambition to hold and retain high office. There are too few “profiles in courage” at a time when we need more officials willing to act against their own personal interest in the common good.
Citizens United and the defeat of the disclosure legislation are not encouraging signs. So far money is winning.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.