by Steve Bogira
It’s a description of the U.S. in the late 1800s, from The Growth of the American Republic, by historians Samuel Morison and Henry Commager, published in 1930 (and cited in this 1957 Supreme Court case).
The nation’s pronounced economic inequality, a focus of Occupy Wall Street and its satellites, including Occupy Chicago, is hardly a new concern. The fear that the “small portion” is subduing the vast majority with the muscle of its money is not new, either—nor are attempts to resist. In 1894 the prominent lawyer (and future secretary of state) Elihu Root exhorted the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York to prohibit corporate political contributions:
The idea is to prevent . . . the great railroad companies, the great insurance companies, the great telephone companies, the great aggregations of wealth from using their corporate funds, directly or indirectly, to send members of the legislature to these halls in order to vote for their protection and the advancement of their interests as against those of the public. It strikes at a constantly growing evil which has done more to shake the confidence of the plain people of small means of this country in our political institutions than any other practice which has ever obtained since the foundation of our Government.
The "constantly growing evil" was eloquently highlighted by Mark Hanna, the campaign manager who raised millions to elect William McKinley president in 1896. "There are two things that are important in politics,” Hanna said. “The first is money, and I can't remember the second."
When Theodore Roosevelt was elected President in 1904, 73 percent of his campaign funds were from large corporate donations. Roosevelt himself called for reform in 1905, telling Congress that “all contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”
This led to the passing of the Tillman Act of 1907, prohibiting bank and corporate contributions to national candidates or parties. The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 brought unions under the Tillman Act’s prohibition. The banks, the corporations, and the unions were able to circumvent the acts—in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson called them “more loophole than law.”
Other attempts to rein in the power of corporate political spending include the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka McCain-Feingold). Corporations have managed to skirt both.
The Occupy movements have targeted last year’s Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in their demands for reform. “Corporations, as legal persons, are now allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of money to campaigns in the exercise of free ‘speech,’” Occupy Chicago observed in calling for the ruling to be overturned.
The high court’s decision, which declared some provisions of McCain-Feingold unconstitutional, was indeed a step backward for electoral reform. But as this brief history indicates, the influence of wealth in electoral politics far predates Citizens United.
It’s important that the Occupy movements are pressuring to reduce the sway of money in politics. The notoriety of Citizens United makes this a promising time for reform. Given how money and politics are welded, however, it will take more than pressure to bring lasting change. It will require smart, tireless work.
“Electoral reform is a graveyard of well-intentioned plans gone awry,” law professors Samuel Issacharoff and Pamela Karlan wrote in the Texas Law Review in 1999. “It doesn’t take an Einstein to discern a First Law of Political Thermodynamics—the desire for political power cannot be destroyed, but at most, channeled into different forms—nor a Newton to identify a Third Law of Political Motion—every reform effort to constrain political actors produces a corresponding series of reactions by those with the power to hold onto it.”