In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson enumerated the inalienable rights of all citizens, with language de-emphasizing their link to economic status. He describes that all men are created equal because they are endowed with the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is abridged from John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” where he describes humans’ rights to life, liberty and property.
Jefferson was deliberate in changing the final word of the tripartite sequence, in order to free then-citizens of England in America from being validated of their national identity only in economic terms; that is, to disassociate citizenship and participation in the government from money. In practice however, throughout history, the United States has operated on the idea of money and owning property. Even in debates surrounding our elections, money seems to be the continual subject. Do voter identification laws exclude those who cannot pay to get a state-issued ID? Are wealthy candidates ideologically removed from the needs of their constituents? Are the very processes of elections just wealth and fundraising contests?
One of the most prominent debates surrounding our elections derives from the original fear of the Declaration writer himself, that participation in government requires property, or money, in order to make a difference. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, was permitted to fund and air a critical documentary about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the heat of the election season.
The reason? Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion of the case that the previous regulations of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act violated the First Amendment protection of free speech, because independent expenditures by corporations or unions can be considered political speech. In a highly controversial opinion of the court, Kennedy also reasoned that the Freedom of the Press clause of the First Amendment protects associations of individuals as well as individuals themselves.
These prospects put forth by Justice Kennedy have been the subject of heated debates about wealth and elections in America. Many citizens and even politicians themselves have vehemently argued against the identity of campaign contributions as a form of free speech, as this sustains an environment of wealthy influence in American politics. Critics argue that money does not equal speech. In this way, campaign contributions now equate to flashy op-ed headlines and are highly stigmatized parts of our election system. Yet as previously noted, American politics throughout history seem to be hinged on money, and without it the US government system would not exist. Perhaps the system we know is so rooted in money that campaign contributions are just the tip of the iceberg.
Many Americans get up in arms about the idea of money and donations as protected political speech. They say that lobbyists and contributions from corporations and influential groups are “buying” votes or policies in the federal government that are sympathetic to the organization that helped federal officials get elected. However, extensive research shows that these claims are predominantly unsubstantiated. In the first place, it is difficult to determine whether a campaign contribution actually impacts the policies that a federal official advocates for, since groups with certain ideological stances tend to support candidates who already support those ideas. Essentially, campaign contributions do not necessarily create policy advantages for an organization, but put people in office who likely already have the same policy objectives. Thus, the idea of “vote buying” is a relatively moot point as there is no direct evidence that such a phenomenon occurs, but also studying this particular facet of elections is highly difficult.
Another issue that many Americans hold with campaign contributions is that they only represent major economic players in elections. However, many of the groups that spend money on lobbying efforts and campaign donations are called membership groups. That is, they represent individuals as members, and act as a representative of these individuals connected by a common policy interest. Essentially, the very formation of interest groups and organizations in the United States is an attempt to collectivize individual sentiment and make a statement, in the form of money, for those who may not have the means to make this political statement on their own. Interest groups that are constructed this way make a statement for all of their members, and those who do not believe in the political speech put forth by an organization can simply leave, which makes a political statement to the interest group itself. Theoretically, the existence of interest groups comprised of individual members shows that these organizations are inherently dedicated to aggregating individual interests and working on the behalf of these views by supporting candidates that support the organization's members. Interest groups and their speech are the result of a political process that otherwise seems to shut out American citizens.
What seems to be more egregious in our society is one of the biggest ways money is used to promote influence of certain policies—the federal budget. What many critics of money-equals-speech ideology forget is that Congress literally supports federal policies and programs with allocations of money every year. This money-centric aspect of our society is even written into our Constitution as an enumerated power of Congress. And what may be even less democratic, select Budget Committees within the Congress “vote” for government policies: if members support them, they increase funding; and if they don’t support them, they cut federal funding. The President submits his or her own proposed budget based on policies he or she believes in ideologically, but Congress, in the process of allocating the American people’s money, exercises their political speech as a polarized body either for or against these proposals.
There really is no way of convincing many critics about the democratic elements of campaign contributions. At the heart, such debates do come down to the concept of money, and whether or not people are excluded or included because of interest groups giving campaign contributions. However, I have reached the conclusion that campaign contributions will continually be viewed as constitutional for the near future because our political system entirely revolves around money as an indicator of policy support. In contrast to Jefferson’s freeing concepts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it seems that our nation continues to strive more toward economic liberties in its pursuit of “property” instead.