Campaign Reform Opponent Says Buckley = Brown

Adam Lioz is Counsel & Senior Advisor for Demos

Greg Moore is Executive Director of the NAACP National Voter Fund

This past Saturday was the 40th anniversary of Buckley v. Valeo, and last week the Cato Institute and the Center for Competitive Politics hosted an event to mark the occasion.

Buckley is the 1976 case that addressed Congress’ post-Watergate money in politics reforms.  The decision gave us the dubious principle that unlimited spending on elections is a form of “free speech.”  It’s the reason that the richest among us can spend unlimited funds from their own pockets to elect their candidates of choice; billionaire candidates can bankroll their own campaigns; and Congress, states, and cities can’t cap campaign spending.  For a simple Q&A on the basics of the case, see Demos’ explainer here.

The Center for Competitive Politics (CPP) is an organization of lawyers and advocates dedicated to fighting any limits on the use of money in American politics.

On the first panel, law professor, CPP founder, and former FEC commissioner Bradley Smith said that Buckley is like Brown v. Board of Education in its importance to our democracy (Buckley is to democracy what Brown is to education).

That’s right—a leading opponent of giving every American an equal voice in our political process compared a decision that allows billionaires to attempt to buy elections to an iconic civil rights victory that ended the stain of “separate but equal” as official government policy.

Let us count the ways in which that statement is ridiculous.

First and foremost, Buckley is a decision that protects the “rights” of the powerful—large campaign spenders and donors—to drown out the rest of our voices.  Brown, of course, is an example of the Court stepping in on behalf of the powerless—children forced to attend inferior schools because of their race.  While Brown anticipated the 1960s “one person, one vote” cases that helped open our democracy for African Americans, Buckley flies in the face of that principle.

Next, Brown was a signature victory in the—yet unfinished—fight for racial equity in this country.  Buckley, on the other hand, has helped foster racial inequality in several ways, as Demos has documented in our Stacked Deck paper.  This is because it helps wealthy interests translate economic might (often, in our history, amassed through discriminatory policies such as redlining) directly into political power, and allows money to form a critical barrier to entry for people of color looking to run effectively for office.  We live in country where 37% of us are people of color and yet 90% of our elected officials are white—and big money politics is one reason why.

Finally, Brown was the result of a decades-long strategic effort to reverse a longstanding Supreme Court precedent—the “separate but equal doctrine” announced in Plessy v. FergusonBuckley was the Court’s very first major money in politics case, and is exactly the 40-year-old precedent we need to reverse now.

As the NAACP and others have repeatedly pointed out, the role of big money in politics is a civil rights issue.  Attempting to appropriate the legacy of civil rights to protect the wealthy and powerful isn’t just wrongheaded—it’s downright Orwellian.