Money in Politics is Corrupting American Democracy
Your vote is more important than ever in fighting back big money undermining the political process.
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
This is an opinion piece by Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, the largest campaign finance reform organization dedicated to unrigging the system and getting Big Money out of our elections.
The news this month that members of Congress worked with the drug lobby to push through a bill that helped fuel the opioid epidemic and put American lives at risk was a prime example of what's wrong with Washington. It's Exhibit-A of how unchecked special interest money in politics directly harms Americans. Politicians, in the pocket of big pharma, did the bidding of the industry and passed legislation that undermined the DEA's ability to fight back against the opioid epidemic which has claimed more than 200,000 American lives.
Until our nation solves the corrupting role of money in politics, Congress will continue to serve the wrong masters - catering to the agenda of special interests and mega donors at the expense of Americans. As bad as it is, the opioid bill is only the tip of the iceberg in Washington's rigged system.
In October, Las Vegas saw the largest mass shooting in modern American history - a heartbreaking chapter in a story that is becoming far too prevalent. But what pulls the floor out from underneath me is the realization that absolutely nothing will change.
Dysfunction, gridlock and corruption in Congress are only part of the fallout from Citizens United.
In the 2016 elections alone, the NRA spent over $54 million to elect their handpicked politicians. In return, they received the tacit promise that those they helped elect would stonewall gun safety measures. So despite that over 90 percent of Americans agree that we need to have some form of background checks and that an equivalent of 93 people are shot dead a day, the gun lobby - just like the drug industry - protected their bottom line and watched their profits soar.
The ability for special interest groups to buy and sell politicians boils down to the 2010 Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that gave corporations and individuals the ability to spend unlimited money in our elections. The result is that candidates not only face off against their opponent but outside special interests and mega-donors who, with millions of dollars at their disposal, will fight to ensure their candidate remains in office and in their pocket. For the candidates that do win, it can cripple their independence and for the few reformers left with the herculean task of unrigging the system they typically find themselves outnumbered and outspent.
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Dysfunction, gridlock and corruption in Congress are only part of the fallout from Citizens United though. As a result of the Supreme Court case, outside spending in elections has skyrocketed from $143 million in 2008 to over $1.3 billion in 2016 - an 800 percent increase.
Measuring the difference between millions to billions of dollars can feel theoretical, so let's put it another way: if the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Kansas City, MO were to increase by 800 percent , rents would jump from $853/month to $7,677/month - a increase that the vast majority of Americans could never afford.
Whether it's knocking on doors or chipping in $5 for a local candidate who supports reform measures, you can make a difference.
And so just like hard working families can't afford rising rent, good candidates just can't afford to compete with the special interests. Nevermind the depth of their experience or commitment to public service, the single most important factor to winning is the ability to fundraise. It's a barrier of entry that disproportionately hurts millennials, women and people of color who lack the same access to capital as their older, male and white counterparts.
The good news is there's a remedy. We can return the power and influence in our government to the people. If you care about unrigging the system, get involved. The politicians defending the status quo and protecting their mega-donors and special interest friends are counting on their tactics to dampen turnout and keep you from voting.
But while they have the billionaires, we have the grassroots.
We have the people who are standing up to the big banks getting rich as Main Street suffers. We have the people who are taking on predatory lenders as student debt soars. We have the people who are fighting back against Big Pharma gutting safety measures while our communities struggle under the opioid epidemic. We have the people who refuse to let the NRA shrug their shoulders at another mass shooting. We have the people going toe-to-toe with big oil so their children can have clean water to drink and fresh air to breathe.
Whether it's knocking on doors or chipping in $5 for a local candidate who supports reform measures, you can make a difference. Every bit counts. At End Citizens United, we are mobilizing our three million strong members to stand up and fight back against the special interests who are trying to buy our democracy. Join our effort, or find the group or issue that matters most to you and get involved. Your activism matters. Your voice matters.
Until we break the corrupt stranglehold big money has on our system, our democracy is threatened. Change starts at the ballot box. Your vote is more important than ever. Use it. It may very well decide the future of our country.
VICE Impact is committed to getting more people registered leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. We are working with Democracy Works' TurboVote challenge, a leading digital voter registration initiative, and grassroots organizations across the country to increase voter registration and turnout in the United States.