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Returning to the Democracy of the Founding Fathers is Not a Good Look

The recent op-ed from NAACP LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill on the recent McCutcheon ruling is a must read. In it, she implores us to focus in on the “devastating aspect” of Chief Justice John Roberts's majority opinion ruling as summarized in his opening sentences:

"There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign and contribute to a candidate's campaign. This case is about the last of those options."

That opening seems to refute the widely held belief that there is no explicit right to vote in the U.S. If I’m reading Roberts correctly, of course voting is a right, because it’s part of the suite of activities that is our most basic democratic right: participation in elections.

I was surprised to find out that all of these activities were weighed equally, though. It sounds like Ifill was also. I also did not know that "participation" itself was limited to the activities Roberts mentioned. Perhaps he only meant to offer a few examples. His last line—“This is a case about the last of those options”—suggests that this is, in fact, his definition. My experience growing up suggests that the definition of “participation” includes more non-partisan activities, like helping people register to vote and helping transport people to the polls. This is what participation meant in the black churches I grew up with since partisan participation was not allowed. I might also add to the definition some election protection services.

But assuming only those options listed by Roberts holds, in terms of basic rights, then this is problematic, because the last of his options -- contributing to campaigns—has enough inequality baked into it to render the other forms moot. If my one vote weighs as much as the Koch brothers' $412 million-and-change campaign contributions in 2012, then I'd have little to worry about. In reality, their millions against my vote adds up to a game of thrones where I have little other utility than to watch the thrones. 

Tom Levenson of The Atlantic was brave enough to name this inequality, now nitrous-fueled by the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as a victory for white supremacy.   

“People of color are almost entirely absent from the top donor profile, and none more so than members of the community that white Americans enslaved for two centuries,” wrote Levenson. Drawing from the Public Campaign’s “Country Club Politics” report, which notes how 90 percent of the top regular campaign contributors live in neighborhoods that are hyper-concentrated with white residents, he says that “Political money and hence influence at the top levels is disproportionately white, male, and with almost no social context that includes significant numbers of African Americans and other people of color.”

Campaign finance expert Spencer Overton, also the interim president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, provided similar analysis when I interviewed him last year for Facing South about the impacts of McCutcheon on people of color. 

"In the pool of people who can make the $3 million contributions [to campaigns], there won't be many African Americans who can make that kind of donation," Overton said. "So politicians will lean toward those who can make those $3 million contributions, and will have less reason to respond to average voters."

Lest we think this wealth imbalance happened by chance, I gotta bring the homey Mychal Denzel Smith in who reminds us over at The Nation that: “The wealth gap didn’t spring up from policy gone awry—it is the policy. This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men.” 

Our democracy was founded on the notion that the inalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson spoke of, like voting, were really only meant for a few white men. To vote back then, not only did you have to be a white male, but in most places, you had to own property. The wealth of many of the men who built this democracy, including Jefferson, was owed to slavery. How the votes of the descendants of slaves could ever add up to the influence of the wealth obtained primarily by enslavement is a question I’d like Roberts to answer.

But we already know the answer. It can’t. And this is made clear by the fact that over 150 years after slavery ended, most political influence remains in the hands of white, wealthy men. The report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” from Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern confirms this:

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

The political interests of African Americans don’t always coincide with those of the average citizen. Pew research told us last year that African Americans are likely to say they are treated unfairly in a number of institutions, but whites are as likely to disagree—68 percent of African Americans say they get screwed by courts, but only 27 percent of whites concede; roughly half of African Americans say they get screwed on voting, but only 13 percent of whites concur.

But even if white citizens agreed with their black counterparts on all of this and wanted policies that correct this, it probably wouldn’t matter. According to Gilens and Page's research: 

“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

Meaning, there are probably a lot of black and white voters who feel spurned by the McCutcheon ruling, but even if they came together to fight it, the white economic elite who benefit from the ruling would likely drown their collective voices out.

This all comes back to the fact that the U.S. elections system, and democracy, were not created with people of color, women and those of low- or no income in mind. This is why the suffrage movement and the earliest civil rights battles were about securing the right to vote, and it’s why those struggles have persisted. Those struggles were about expanding the franchise and allowing more people to influence the direction of the country, but knowing that those excluded Americans could only do that through the ability to vote themselves.

All Roberts's other ways of participating in elections—volunteering and urging others to vote—are null if we don't personally have the ballot. Civil rights activists got beat up and beat down for the vote because that’s what they were told was the essential ingredient to the democratic recipe -- the roux of the gumbo.

All that to be told by Roberts today that actually it’s only one of a few essentials, including one ingredient that is out of your reach if you are anything other than a white man of affluence. If that is true, then we should be panicked about Roberts returning to the infantile democracy of Jefferson’s time, not the matured democracy realized by our civil rights leaders.

Ifill calls Roberts line “a startling democratic view, which reorders the primacy of voting among the instruments of democratic participation.” It's hard to see how that reordering isn't just a return to the original order of things. It's not wrong to see it, as correctly cued by Tom Levenson, as the preservation of white supremacy.