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Open To Thinking: The Future of Our Democracy
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2015-07-01

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Winston S. Churchill: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." ( House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947 )

Our democracy has changed radically 'from time to time' since the founding of our republic. In 1787 when our constitution was adopted, each state regulated voting rights for all elections, which meant, for the most part, that only white male landowners could vote. In 1868 former slaves received U.S. citizenship but only males were permitted to vote. Until the beginning of the 20th century, some U.S. residents of Asian ancestry were denied the right to become citizens; others, who were citizens, were denied the right to vote. Women did not enjoy the right to vote until 1920. ( See: Time Line U.S. Voting Rights: goo.gl/PSGaQD )

Today, we, more or less, run our elections on the national standard of one U.S. citizen over 18 years of age equals one vote. I say 'more or less' because there are many challenges confronting the implementation of this national standard in both federal and state elections. To mention a few: the matter of 'undemocratic' representation in the Electoral College, the gerrymandering of electoral districts by state legislatures, the wide variation of state voting requirements.

With the January 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed a tsunami of unregulated spending in our national politics. This flood of money has essentially altered our contemporary democratic processes. Prior to Citizens United, monies spent on the election of candidates for federal office came primarily from the political party and conventional political action committees ( PACs ). After Citizens United monies spent in elections came principally from 'Outside' sources, that is, from monies not raised or spent by the candidate on her/his campaign. These monies come from corporations and unions and super PACs and other such entities, both for-profit and not-for-profit. To add to the hazards of this deluge of money, the not-for-profit super PACs do not have to disclose the names of their donors.

In the 2012 federal elections the Koch brothers spent more than $400 million supporting their chosen candidates ( www.republicreport.org/2014/unions-koch/ ). Nicholas Confessore ( New York Times Jan. 26, 2015 ) writes that the Koch brothers plan to spend around $900 million in the 2016 federal elections. This sum represents the total amount the Republican and Democratic parties each are expected to spend. Add to this roughly $2 billion, the $1 billion that each presidential candidate is expected to spend on her/his candidacy, you end up with $4 billion, not even considering the expenditure of other political monies.

What does all this money get us? Are we better informed about the candidates or the issues? Is our government running more effectively?

Citizens United put gale force winds behind trends in our contemporary democracy that have led to fragmentation, gridlock, and dysfunction in our governing dynamics.

Around 60 percent of eligible voters turnout for presidential elections. That is a high for general elections. For primary elections, the 2014 range was 9.7% for Iowa and 23.6% for Montana. ( Hunter Schwarz, Washington Post, July 23, 2014. )

When you put Big Money ( and the power of negative attack ads ) behind candidates linked to buzz issues like abortion, gun control, taxes, migration, and terrorism, you end up with a political system that exercises significant control over who wins a primary and who can run in a general election.

In today's Republican presidential lineup, the declared candidates judge they have to steer clear of same-sex marriage, for example, not because the general population is necessarily opposed but because the organized minority who vote in primaries might very well be opposed.

The enormous cost of elections makes candidates dependent upon Big Money. Big Money sets the agenda for the candidates. This phenomenon of the tail wagging the dog plagues both parties.

Neither the Democrat President Obama nor the Republican House Speaker John Boehner nor the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, alone or all together, control the votes they need to pass the legislation they judge important for our nation.

A single senator such as Tom Cotton ( R ) of Arkansas or Rand Paul ( R ) of Kentucky can become a majority of one by blocking legislation or treaties or budgets.

We need to move back to common sense, pragmatic governance.

We need to put brakes on the unintended effects of the Citizens United decision.

With Temple University law professor David Kairys, we need to chant the mantra: "Money Isn't Speech and Corporations Aren't People."

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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