What if democracy is just an illusion? - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of Marx’s theory of the ruling class than Citizens United, the 2010 case brought before the US Supreme Court in which the majority decided that political action committees (or PACs) cannot be subject to campaign finance laws. PACs do not formally represent candidates and instead, express their own political views. So the money they spend is more like free speech. Therefore, political money is speech protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
In theory, this is an egalitarian ruling. Any citizen can spend any amount of money to promote or attack any issue they want. But we don’t live in an egalitarian society. As Gore Vidal has said, America is a very good place to live if you have money and property. Not so much if you don’t.
Now we have 364 so-called super PACs dominating the national political dialogue as candidates compete for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. These organisations can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t explicitly endorse or challenge a specific candidate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they have raised more than $130m in 2012 and spent almost $75m on attack advertisements carried over broadcast, cable and radio. Of that total amount, 25 per cent comes from just five people.
What these ads say is less important than their results, one of which is the curious political phenomenon of the zombie candidate. Without a billionaire casino tycoon who keeps obligingly writing checks to a super PAC, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would have quit a long time ago. Then there are candidates like Mitt Romney who need not be especially good at being candidates. Romney is preternaturally unable to ignite the party’s base, yet he continues winning primaries because his backer, a super PAC called Restore Our Future, has spent $37m in two and a half months, more than any sum spent on any candidate in any election ever.
Some super PACs don’t even support candidates, but instead attack incumbents. The Campaign for Primary Accountability is spending millions to oust representatives who’d otherwise be safe. Political activity, moreover, isn’t restricted to super PACs. Americans for Prosperity, officially a “non-profit advocacy group”, has supported Tea Party candidates and has launched propaganda campaigns in Wisconsin that touted Governor Scott Walker’s austerity measures and newly passed anti-union laws. Americans for Prosperity is funded by libertarians Charles and David Koch, brothers whose combined worth is estimated to be about $50bn. Instead of targeting politicians vying for public office, the Kochs are taking aim at ordinary middle-class workers who might otherwise have reason to believe in the American Dream.
Columnist EJ Dionne of the Washington Post summed it up when he wrote:
Oh, yes, it works nicely for the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, especially if they want to shroud their efforts to influence politics behind shell corporations. It just doesn’t happen to work if you think we are a democracy and not a plutocracy.
And perhaps there’s the real problem. If you believe the US is a democracy, if you believe in the rule of the many and not the rule of the few, then the Citizens United ruling could not be more troubling. But what if this is not a democracy? What if this, as Dionne suggests, is an oligarchy of billionaire capitalists? More horrible to ponder, what if democracy is yet more intellectual cover, another one of those illusions, for the exploitation of American workers?
Then the theory of the ruling class fits perfectly. Citizens United and the United States were made for each other.