Supreme Court decision puts politics up for sale

Tracking money in politics has become increasingly difficult, not only because of the sheer volume of donations, but also because many of them are channeled through 527 committees or “charitable” organizations that lack any campaign contribution limits. In the 2012 election, billions of dollars flowed to candidates’ arsenals from both partisan corporate groups and individuals, significantly influencing local and national political races.

The April 2 Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission renders monetary political patronage even more influential by removing all limits on political donations. Previously, individuals could only donate up to $2,600 per candidate in a single election cycle per year, according to the Federal Election Committee. Now, donations from individuals are only limited by whatever amount the campaign deems appropriate.

In essence, this decision asks political candidates to self-regulate, which not only allows for unlimited purchasing power in elections but also solidifies the view that money is a form of freedom of speech by allowing voters to support their political perspectives financially without oversight from the government.

Alabama millionaire Shaun McCutcheon filed the lawsuit against the FEC in 2012, claiming the donation limit was a violation of his First Amendment rights, according to the FEC. Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that the court did not want to infringe on said First Amendment rights unless it was “quid pro quo” corruption, which occurs when donors offer money in exchange for political favors.

However, by lifting campaign spending limits entirely, the Supreme Court is silently endorsing a system that benefits the highest bidder. Money speaks in politics—shady backdoor deals trade financial support for legislation, often through corporate lobbyists or political action committees, which are funded by wealthy individuals.

Political action committee donations increased steadily from 1990–2012, rising from more than $300 million in 1990 to $1.4 billion in 2012, according to political research website Now that supporters can donate freely to campaigns, the Supreme Court has legitimized the system of backdoor lobbying and buying political influence.

The court’s decision amounts to sanctioning a patronage system, creating a divide between those who can financially afford to have political clout and those who cannot. The Supreme Court is wrong to endorse a system that has proven to be easily gamed, allowing America’s social issues to be governed by corporate interests rather than the good of the people.

The First Amendment protects the right to speak with money, but elections are not a free market. The democratic system must be founded on popular support and votes to function properly, not money. That reasoning turns democracy into a business, which works by definition toward profit while cutting costs. This almost always comes at the expense of the general public and benefits only those who can afford to line the pockets of the policy makers.

The Supreme Court is only nominally defending the country against corruption. In reality, it is punting the issue. Americans value their freedom, but instead of naively hoping corruption will not continue and clinging to an ideal of free speech, the court needs to face the truth of the situation and address it before corruption rots the U.S. political system.

Americans need to ramp up their personal research into candidates’ activities and platforms instead of passively voting for the name they see most often on TV. Advertisements are biased and backed by ever-increasing amounts of cash, so constituents need to search for their own information to make an informed decision.

If voters want a more ethically sound political system, they will have to enforce fair elections themselves because the Supreme Court has rendered the nation’s politics a free market.