Downton America

By:  Editorial Board

A snowball effect is working to widen the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else at an accelerating pace, turning the nation into Downton America, where an aristocratic elite enjoys privileges and power that undermine democracy.

This effect was visible in the Supreme Court decision released Wednesday that erased the cap on aggregated political contributions by individuals to the candidates of their choice. The majority of the Roberts court, which had ruled in the Citizens United case to allow unfettered giving by corporations and unions, has now decided that individuals, too, should not face restrictions in the amount of money the law permits them to give.

Thus, the snowball picks up speed. Billionaires eager to protect the many privileges secured for them in the law, and to receive additional tax cuts and other benefits, are now able to spend all the money they like to buy friendly congressmen and women. It is a self-reinforcing cycle. As their privileges expand, their power to protect and extend their privileges also expands.

That’s why the erosion of campaign finance law has been one of the most damaging trends effected by the Roberts court. (The other is the erosion of voting rights, which has its own potential snowball effect.) Already Democrats are seeking to highlight the out-sized role of the Koch brothers and gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson in bankrolling Republican candidates. And if control of the U.S. Senate falls to the Republicans this fall, the snowball of privilege will only pick up momentum.

Willful blindness has characterized the court’s rulings, ignoring the real-world consequences on both campaign finance and voting rights. What are those consequences? In campaign finance, its rulings ignore the corruption of the democratic process and the power accruing to corporations and wealthy individuals who have the money to drown out competing voices. In its voting rights ruling in the Shelby County (Ala.) case, the majority ignored the racial bias that still prevails in many parts of the South.

The majority argues that limiting a person’s right to make contributions limits his First Amendment right of free speech. The minority counters that spending money is not speech; it is commerce. Anyone can speak up on election issues or candidates, but commerce in political speech has in the past been regulated in order to maintain a fair marketplace.

It is becoming widely recognized that the United States is in the midst of a new Gilded Age. The comparisons are startling. The top 1 percent of income in the United States goes to a narrower percentage of the population than in Colombia. Oxfam has reported that the richest 85 people in the world now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population.

Economists are advancing theories about why this is taking place. One important consideration is that corporate CEOs now take home exorbitant packages of pay and stock. In the 1950s the average CEO took home about 20 times the earnings of a typical worker in his company. Today, Fortune 500 companies give their CEOs more than 200 times as much. The CEO of Apple earns 6,258 times what a typical worker at his company earns.

That is how you build a Downton-style elite. Moreover, cutting taxes on the elite, as the Republicans hope to do, is a way of depriving the government of the funds needed to pay for the schools, income support, health care and other expenditures that help lift up the non-elite. And yet if the elite is free to buy the politicians of its choice, the divergence between rich and poor will only grow.

“Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government,” Sen. Bernard Sanders said Wednesday. That appears not to be the view of the U.S. Supreme Court.