John Griffith “Jack” London was one of the first fiction writers to amass a fortune based on the popularity of his fiction writing alone. He is famous for stories set in the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, when over 100,000 people migrated to northwestern Canada in search of the elusive precious metal. The Call of the Wild, one of London’s first works to win him notoriety, follows the story of Buck, a dog stolen from his California home and then trained as a sled dog in the Yukon during the Gold Rush.
If I were a young Jack London in 2014, I wouldn’t trek the thousands of miles through the Pacific Northwest into the tundra of northwestern Canada looking for gold or writerly inspiration: I would join a political campaign.
The Supreme Court handed down a ruling about two weeks ago in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case examining the question of the aggregate limits on campaign donations. In a 5-4 decision, NPR reported, “the court said the limits were a violation of the First Amendment. However, the ruling affects only aggregate donations on the total amount that a contributor can hand out to multiple candidates and political action committees, which is currently set at $123,200.” The ruling follows the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, where the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on corporations making political donations as hampering First Amendment free speech rights.
The New York Times reported that, “As constitutional scholars digest the court’s decision, it has already set off a bipartisan scramble for campaign cash, thrusting party leaders, lawmakers with leadership PACs, and candidates into a fierce competition.”
The ruling allows donors to make the maximum donation for to an individual candidate (currently set at $2,600) to any number of political campaigns. This means, according to the Times, “Without the caps, party leaders can direct donors to send additional checks to second- and third-tier candidates without worrying that it will deprive first-tier candidates of badly needed money.”
The parties and candidates can now also form joint fundraising committees, allowing them to work together to solicit larger donations from donors who are now able to support a variety of candidates and parties. POLITICO reported that “With the limit gone, joint fundraising is poised to become a new tool in the fundraising arsenal for campaigns and parties.”
The news reports on the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the changes in campaign strategies and fundraising strategies in both Republican and Democratic camps, do not sound that unlike the gold rush at the turn of the twentieth century - a rush for cash, a launch of new strategies - and should make us wonder what we are to think about the relationship, not just between financial donations and concepts like free speech and protected First Amendment rights, but also about what a gold rush mentality might do to our political system.
When I was leading an intensive class on politics at my former high school, we spent an afternoon listening to an in-depth story about the role of money in politics - from the physical distance needed between a Representative’s campaign office (where they can call donors) to their government office, to the kinds of events they attend and the expectation of how much money it takes to run a campaign successfully - and I remember being surprised at the frantic pace of money in elections, beyond its pervasive presence. We have been hearing for a long time that money is everywhere, but in our class’s discussion that afternoon, we raised the (I think extremely important) question: how much time does money take up in the business of governing?
On a two or four or even six year election cycle, it seems that one can hardly be in office before being sent out into the Yukon of the country to pan for gold for the next run at office. Money seems to take up an extraordinary amount of time in our elections. It is what we report on in the news, where we see candidates spending countless hours, what we protest loudest and what we worry about most.
I think we should worry about the role of money in our elections not only because it amplifies the voices of those able to donate (either through their donations or through the access to politicians their donations provide), but also because it takes our attention away from all the other questions we should be asking about fair elections and about good governance.
We should also be talking about fair elections in terms of voting stations, hours of operation and ensuring truly fair access to voting for all citizens. We should be talking about how to ensure a wide array of candidates running for office. We should be talking about what happens when half the workday of a Congress person is taken up with fundraising work, according to this article in The Washington Post, instead of writing bills or amending them.
The recent Supreme Court ruling should not usher in the next Klondike Rush in campaign spending. But without shifting the conversation around money and politics, without an insistent and engaged electorate working to change how we talk about this, McCutcheon v. FEC might be the latest cry of, “I’ve struck gold!”
-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt