Want evidence? On Wednesday of last week, May 17, the stock market took its largest tumble of the year, nearly 400 points. That loss was attributed to the increasing controversy surrounding President Trump and concerns that he would not be able to pass his tax proposals that favor big business. Corporate chieftains were having a fit.
On the same day of that loss, however, Department of Justice officials took a dramatic step and decided to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Trump-Russia allegations and decide once and for all whether there is merit to the allegations that seem to gain more traction with each passing news cycle. No matter what side you are on, it seems particularly ironic that a bad day on Wall Street was followed by the most dramatic move yet in this controversy.
Since this country’s founding, there has been a push and pull between the power of the corporations and their powerful owners and interests and the middle-class voters, who back during the founding were farmers or small businessmen. It’s those voters who send representatives to Washington to do their bidding, but too often it seems they are forgotten. In the last few years in particular it seems the scales have been tipped toward the powerful at the expense of the middle class, and it has contributed mightily to the level of acrimony in politics and civil discourse.
Perhaps the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case of 2010 was the tipping point. That case, a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court, struck down a longstanding ban on donations from corporations to political campaigns. In its decision, the high court equated political donations with free speech, thereby extending to corporations the same rights extended to individuals in the original Bill of Rights — despite the fact that corporations, unions and other such organizations are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.
Since the Citizens United decision, it is estimated that the top .01 percent of income earners have made more than 40 percent of campaign contributions.
A recent column in they Sylva Herald by Mark Jamison posed a question relevant to this debate: does the U.S. have a market economy, or are we slipping (downward, by my estimation) toward a total market society? In considering that question, one has to ask very basic questions about what it means to form a society. Do we let our capitalist, competitive instincts guide everything — as some seem to think is best — or do we insist on a government that takes into account the ethics and morality that helped shape this country’s founding?
What would a market society look like? In essence, everything would be about money. The worth of everything would be based on its market value. Philosopher Michael J. Sandel writes about our growing tendency to marketize every thing in our life, from education to health care to procreation to civic life. Unfortunately, the market does not place much value on the fundamental building blocks of a democratic society — civic engagement, public education, free speech, for example.
There’s a nationwide movement right now by several groups to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that constitutional rights belong only to individuals and that free speech does not include unlimited spending on political campaigns. In North Carolina this request is contained in House Bill 453. It’s a measure worth supporting.
The rich and powerful will always be powerful, and in a free market economy those who accumulate the most money will have more influence. Nothing wrong with that. But the pendulum is swinging too toward those who can afford to buy influence. We need to begin moving back the other way, and this amendment is a start.