Five years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down its damaging decision inCitizens United v. FEC. The ruling, which allowed wealthy interests to buy unprecedented influence in elections, was and still is deeply unpopular. But the issue of money in politics remains, for some people, relegated to a category of “someone else’s issue” — the policy wonks in Washington, the researchers who spend long hours sifting through the latest campaign data. “It’s their issue,” we think.
In reality, the decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for the big-money election system we have today affect our lives every day, even when those connections can be hard to see.
Last month, Demos released a report laying bare some of those links, especially as they affect people of color. Their analysis highlighted how big money in politics undermines racial equality:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win.
The report point outs that in some ways, this is not new: As long as our country has been a country, people of color have been shortchanged by our democratic system. Our history is littered with violent retaliation and unrelenting roadblocks for many who tried to actively participate in our democracy. But those setting a political agenda that shortchanges people of color haven’t always had unlimited billionaire and corporate political dollars backing them up.
What does this mean in real people’s lives? It means more mass incarceration, for one, the harm of which African Americans disproportionately bear. Wealthy people are more likely than low-income people to support the construction of more prisons, and studies have found that the rich have greater influence on policy outcomes. Private prison companies, whose bottom lines depend on getting people behind bars,spend millions to influence policymakers, and groups like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed for tougher sentencing laws. But it’s often people of color who pay the price, when family members and friends suddenly disappear from their communities.
It also means a stagnant minimum wage, which women of color aredisproportionately likely to be earning. While the public strongly supports raising the minimum wage, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which opposes raising it, can afford to pour millions into elections and hold serious sway with lawmakers. Though not immediately apparent, there is a direct connection to the amount of money a low-income woman takes home in her paycheck and the Supreme Court decisions governing our big-money political system.
And the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, money in politics cannot be “someone else’s issue.” Because it distorts who is heard by our elected officials, it affects what’s in your paycheck, who ends up in prison, what kind of health care we have access to, what kind of environment we leave for our children, and much more.
That’s why one piece of the larger fight for racial justice must be reforming the rules governing money in elections. It’s fitting that we mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United on the same week we remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, King said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
In the wake of Citizens United, the struggle to make those promises real has become even more urgent.