Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Is Money Undemocratic?

By Jared SiegelPublished April 26, 2014

Recent Supreme Court campaign finance reform decisions have steered the United States government further from its democratic framework.

Democracy, according to most government theorists, has three substantive requirements. The first and foremost is accountability: every government official must be accountable to the general public either through popular elections or through appointment by an official who was elected.  The second is participation: every citizen must have the right to cast votes in elections and therefore have a political voice. The third is contestation: multiple candidates must challenge every elected seat in the government. Under these guidelines, the United States government is a democracy.

However, recent Supreme Court decisions regarding election reform have caused the United States government to shift away from its democratic framework. On April 2, the court released a decision in a 5-4 vote in favor of Shaun McCutcheon in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee. This decision eliminated the aggregate limit to federal campaign donations, sparking outrage over the increasing influence of money in politics.

Defending the decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion, “Significant First Amendment interests are implicated here. Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a ‘modest restraint’ on those rights.”

In 2009, in another 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court voted in favor of Citizens United in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee. The decision was an even larger win for wealthy financers, ruling that corporations could donate uncapped sums of money towards “Super PACs,” who in turn could engage in advocacy during political campaigns.   

Defending the decision, Justice Kennedy famously said in the court’s majority opinion, “Political speech is indispensable to decision making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.”

Both of these decisions equate campaign contributions to political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment and inherent in the requirement that a democracy guarantee every individual the right to voice his or her political beliefs without limits. The unfortunate corollary to this line of logic is that incredibly wealthy people and corporations should have an increasingly valuable political voice. Furthermore, as wealthy individuals and companies contribute more to each candidate and spread out this influence to more federal candidates, it muffles everyone else’s political voice. This incentivizes candidates to cater to the interests of the wealthy few rather than the popular majority. Candidates and officials therefore fail to be accountable to the population as a whole, undermining the democratic process in practice.

These cases further bring into question the democratic validity of judicial review. Eighty-one percent of Americans of disagree with the Citizens United decision, with overwhelming bi-partisan support to overturn it (85 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans opposed it). Yet Supreme Court justices are not elected and as they serve life terms, they cannot be easily removed from office. Short of retirement or death of one of the justices, the American public has no direct outlet to change its decision or to mitigate the influence of money in politics. If justices can make any decision without remaining accountable to the population, judicial review is not a democratic method of law enforcement. There is a certain double standard in our society. The government claims to be of, for, and by the people, and yet, an institution insulated from public accountability continues to engage in actions that make government increasingly undemocratic.