Democracy in the United States has been replaced by a rival form of government premised upon the power of wealth. Not to be confused with mere corruption, plutocracy is an official system of rule built upon new interpretations of political speech, equality, and representation. The power of plutocracy rests upon public ignorance of and acquiescence to the profound transformation described in the pages that follow, perhaps the next American trend to sweep the globe.
The elections of 2016 are playing out upon a ramshackle platform of economic and political inequality that only recently became impossible to ignore. In a single two-week period in April of 2014, Thomas Piketty revealed that the bottom 50% of the population owns just 2% of national wealth, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found empirically that the wealthy enjoy nearly exclusive control over US government policy, and the Supreme Court struck down a key Watergate reform in McCutcheon v. FEC, enabling individuals to donate millions of dollars each to political campaigns.1 McCutcheon’s remarkable extension of the First Amendment’s free speech clause came on the heels of another Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. FEC, which granted corporations a constitutional right to unlimited political expenditures from general treasury funds. What do such constitutional sympathies and concentrations of power reveal about the United States?
The problem of money in politics runs far deeper than we care to admit. Piketty notes that the top 10% of US wealth holders could not possibly control 70% of national wealth as they do today if it were not for the existence of laws favourable to the concentration of wealth – a striking panorama of privatisation, deregulation, and tilted policies on entitlements, labour, and taxation. Beyond the decline of organised labour, Gilens and Page explain that wealthy citizens and interest groups are able to achieve such laws because they “regularly lobby and fraternise with public officials, move through revolving doors between public and private employment, provide self-serving information to officials, draft legislation, and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns.”2 Viewed in light of such facts, the depth of the problem is a function of government being co-opted by the few to secure their own interests over and above those of the public – an age-old recipe to be sure. John Locke defined tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right[,] not for the good of those who are under it, but for [one’s] own private, separate advantage.” Certainly King George III qualified. But Locke also said this about tyranny: It is “a mistake to think this fault is proper only to monarchies.” “[O]ther forms of government are liable to it, as well,” Locke continued, “[f]or wherever the power is put in any hands for the government of the people, and… is…made use of to impoverish, harass or subdue them…There it presently becomes Tyranny.”3 Could it be the case that tyranny has re-emerged on American soil? Does an aristocracy of wealth now subjugate Americans?
About the Author
Timothy K. Kuhner is an Associate Professor at Georgia State University College of law. He is the author of Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution (Stanford University Press, 2014), and a graduate of Bowdoin College and Duke Law School.
1. April 2: the US Supreme Court’s opinion in McCutcheon v FEC; As shown on the first page of the opinion itself. McCutcheon v Fed. Election Comm’n, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (2014) <www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-536_e1pf.pdf>. April 9: the advance copy of Gilens and Page’s study; Kapur, S. (2014). Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means. Talking Points Memo, 22 April <http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/princeton-scholar-demise-of-democracy-america-tpm-interview>. April 15: the English version of Piketty’s Capital. See <www.amazon.com> (query ‘Piketty’ and ‘capital’) (reflecting publication date of 15 April 2014).
2. Gilens, M. and Page, B. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12(3), p. 567.
3. Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government (1988, Peter Laslett, ed.), p.400.
4. Confessore, N., Cohen, S. and Yourish, K. (2015). The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election. New York Times, Oct. 10.
5. Center for Responsive Politics, ‘Donor Demographics’ (Opensecrets.org)<www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php>
6. On 2014, Center for Responsive Politics, ‘Donor Demographics’ (Opensecrets.org) <www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemo
graphics.php> For elections between 1992 and 2012, <www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/donordemographics.php?cycle=
2012&filter=A>. Lessig, L. (2014). What an Originalist Would Understand “Corruption” to Mean. California Law Review, Volume 102, Issue 1, p. 5.
7. Levine, C. (2014). Surprise! No. 1 super PAC backs Democrats. The Center for Public Integrity, 3 November, <www.publicintegrity.org/2014/11/03/16150/surprise-no-
8.McGehee, M. (2012). Only a Tiny Fraction of Americans Give Significantly to Campaigns. The Campaign Legal Center, 18 October <www.clcblog.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=
9. Center for Responsive Politics (2014). Outside Spending, By Candidate’ (Opensecrets.org) <www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/summ.php?disp=C>.
10. Vandewalker, I. (2014). Outside Spending and Dark Money in Toss-Up Senate Races: Post-Election Update. Brennan Center for Justice, 10 November.
11. Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. P. 439.}
12. Ibid at p. 263.
13. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 24-26 (1976).
14. Ibid at p. 19 (“A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached. This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money.”).
15. Ibid at p. 48–49.
16. Ibid at p. 57.
18. Citizens United v Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 US 310, 359 (2010).
19. Ibid at p. 351 (quoting Austin 494 US 652, 707 (Kennedy, J., dissenting)).
20. Ibid at p. 359.
21. Davis v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 554 US 724, 742 (2008).
22. Ibid at p. 742.
23. Ibid at p. 741 (emphasis added).
24. Ibid at p. 742.
25. McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434, 1448 (2014) (internal marks removed).
26. Paine, T. (1797). Agrarian Justice, http://www.ssa.gov/history/paine4.html [https://perma.cc/J6DJ-56FN].