Teddy Roosevelt V. Citizens United

Big 5

How is it possible that, given overwhelming public concern about the direction of the country, we could be facing historically low turnout in the midterm elections on Nov. 4?

The question isn’t new. As trust in government has swung up and down in the past half century, turnout for midterm races, as in presidential years, has varied relatively little, each staying within a 10-point range. Studies of nonvoters have found many reasons, but one of the big ones is that people know a single vote rarely if ever determines the outcome of an election.

By this reasoning, of course, why would anyone ever vote?

For those with no family member to vote for, the best answer is usually “civic virtue,” which just means caring about the country, its direction and its future. That old answer to an old problem takes on new urgency in elections when the country faces some form of peril.

One of those moments came in 1896, after the panic of 1893, a time when the Gilded Age’s concentration of great wealth among the very few made a sharp contrast with the deep economic depression that most of the country was suffering through.

The elections of 1896 and 1900 were the last in American history when turnout exceeded 70 percent. Both pitted the populist William Jennings Bryan, defender of the common man, against William McKinley, supporter of the gold standard and, in Bryan’s view, a tool of “the money trust.”

The specter of a Bryan presidency was so palpable and frightening to the corporate and financial worlds that the McKinley campaign was able to pioneer a crude early form of modern political fundraising: His campaign manager simply visited heads of large banks and corporations, asked them how much they would spend to beat Bryan, and took their checks to the bank.

McKinley was able to raise $3.5 million that way in 1896. Calculations of the current value of old money are notoriously squishy, but the equivalent in economic power today would be well north of $1 billion and, in any case, far more money per ballot than was ever spent before or since.

Money talked so loudly in McKinley’s lopsided victories that in the end it seems to have worked too well. After McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, criticism of his fundraising made campaign finance reform a signature issue for his running mate and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who started talking about it not long after becoming president. Though TR accepted corporate contributions for his campaign of 1904, he ignored the donors’ requests for payback (Henry Clay Frick groused, “We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn’t stay bought”) and pushed through the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited banks and corporations from contributing to political campaigns.

A century of campaign-finance reform followed, the constant drift of it being to regulate, contain and disclose the flow of Big Money into U.S. politics. Some of that reform was halfhearted because the people who voted for it needed the money they were supposed to be cutting off. But it reflected the public’s strong conviction that letting corporations and the wealthy use their financial power to exert a greater say in elections than ordinary citizens was just plain bad for democracy.

That view hit a big snag with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United four years ago and in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission last spring, which opened the floodgates to Big Money contributions and allowed even mega-donors to remain anonymous, preventing the public from knowing where a lot of that money was coming from, and why.

Once in a while, though, you get to see where some of the “dark money” comes from and what its purpose is, and when that happens, as it did last week, it’s clear why nondisclosure is such a bad idea.

Given the partisan divide on this Supreme Court, it’s probably going to take new laws and new lawmakers to change things, and that’s what my vote is going to be about on Nov. 4. But take your pick: Abortion, contraception, fracking, climate change, Ebola, Islamic State, failing schools, crumbling roads and bridges—there’s something for everybody in the midterm  elections.

So this column is dedicated to my 60 million fellow Americans who could have registered by now but haven’t — and to the 60 million registered voters who sat out the last midterm elections. Early voting may already have started, but it’s not too late to register, and there is help if you need it (here, here, here and lots of other places).

Our votes may not decide the election, but they say a lot about who we are. And to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s great joke about a room full of manure and a pony, there just might be a Teddy Roosevelt in there somewhere.

Source : reuters