The American experiment with democracy is in crisis. In this new Gilded Age, wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and the gap between the rich and poor has grown ever wider.
For the more than 14 percent of this nation officially living in poverty and for the millions more who lack any economic security, the current political process is bankrupt. It does not provide any meaningful opportunity for the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard. For the very forces that control and directly benefit from the U.S. economy also control and directly benefit from today's campaign-finance system, and in doing so, disproportionately influence our public elections.
We can change the direction. To do this, we must not only highlight the standard arguments of the danger of corruption posed by our money-dominated political system. We must also return to the bedrock principle of democracy: political equality for all. The power of the democratic vision lies in that simple promise. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 57:
"Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States ..."
If the promise of political equality is to mean anything, it must, first and foremost, have meaning for the most powerless of our society. The political process cannot serve as an avenue for changing economic conditions for the poor when the playing field is uneven. In a true democracy, the poor and the rich must stand on equal ground.
To renew this promise, we must use our power as a people under Article V of the U.S. Constitution to enact a constitutional amendment that will end the big-money dominance of our elections and level the playing field for all, regardless of economic status.
Such an amendment would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which equated corporations with people and unleashed unlimited dollars from corporations and billionaires into our political process. It would also overturn the prior ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech and set us on this course of our elections as auctions up to the highest bidders. In the five years since the Citizens United ruling, a growing movement has emerged demanding this 28th amendment--the Democracy For All Amendment; last September, it received the support of 54 U.S. senators in an historic vote on the Senate floor.
To date, 16 states and more than 650 cities and towns across the country have joined the call for this constitutional amendment. And now Arkansas will soon have the opportunity to become the 17th state. On Tuesday, a broad coalition of national and local organizations will hold a rally at 12:30 p.m. outside the state Capitol in Little Rock to launch a campaign for a ballot initiative in Arkansas calling for this amendment. Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and Stamp Stampede will join state Rep. Clarke Tucker, along with many other local and national leaders.
Arkansas has witnessed firsthand the destructive impact of unlimited campaign spending on our democracy. Total spending in the 2014 Senate race here last year reached nearly $63.5 million, with $39.9 million of that total sourced from outside groups, making the contest one of the top five most-expensive Senate races in 2014. Statewide races last year for governor and lieutenant governor also saw millions of dollars spent, and the money chase has affected state legislative elections as well. The staggering price tag on participation in public debate muffles the voices of everyday people.
The time has come for a 28th Amendment that will allow for overall campaign-spending limits in our elections and that will help ensure that all voices can be heard. We have used our constitutional amendment power before to bring down barriers to our democracy and to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings which threaten our republic. We can and we must do it again.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial more than 50 years ago, he spoke about a "promissory note" that had "come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" It is a promissory note that still today has yet to be fulfilled.
America's promise of political equality cannot co-exist with the current campaign-financing structure. If this nation is to uphold its expressed commitment to a democratic vision, then this barrier, like ones before it, must come down.
Join us Tuesday at the Capitol and help us reclaim our democracy.
Paul Spencer is the co-chair of Regnat Populus and a history teacher at the Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. John Bonifaz is a constitutional attorney and the co-founder and president of Free Speech For People.
Editorial on 05/18/2015