Parkland shooting survivor and activist David Hogg recently asked why John McCain has taken over $7 million from the NRA (not to mention other millions they and other “guns rights” groups have spent supporting him indirectly).
McCain’s answer, no doubt, would be the standard politician-speak these days: “They support me because they like my positions; I don’t change my positions just to get their money.” It’s essentially what Marco Rubio told the Parkland kids when he was confronted with a similar question.
And it’s a bullshit answer, as we all well know.
America has had an on-again, off-again relationship with political corruption that goes all the way back to the early years of our republic. Perhaps the highest level of corruption, outside of today, happened in the late 1800s, the tail end of the “Gilded Age.” (Gilded, of course, refers to “gold coated or gold colored,” an era that Donald Trump is trying so hard to bring back that he’s even replaced the curtains in the Oval Office with gold ones.)
One of the iconic stories from that era was that of William Clark, who died in 1925 with a net worth in excess, in today’s money, of $4 billion. He was one of the richest men of his day, perhaps second only to John D. Rockefeller. And in 1899, Clark’s story helped propel an era of political cleanup that reached its zenith with the presidency of progressive Republicans (that species no longer exists) Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Clark’s scandal even led to the passage of the 17th Amendment, which let the people of the various states decide who would be their U.S. senators, instead of the State Legislature deciding, which was the case from 1789 until 1913 when that amendment was ratified.
By 1899, Clark owned pretty much every legislator of any consequence in Montana, as well as all but one newspaper in the state. Controlling both the news and the politicians, he figured they’d easily elect him to be the next U.S. senator from Montana. Congress later learned that he not only owned the legislators, but in all probability stood outside the statehouse with a pocket full of $1,000 bills in plain white envelopes to hand out to every Member who’d voted for him.
When word reached Washington, D.C., about the envelopes and the cash, the U.S. Senate began an investigation into Clark, who told friends and aides that, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”
Mark Twain wrote of Clark: “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs.”
State Senator Fred Whiteside, who owned the only non-Clark-owned newspaper in the state, the Kalispell Bee, led the big expose of Clark’s bribery. The rest of the Montana senators, however, ignored Whiteside and took Clark’s money.
The U.S. Senate in 1899 launched an investigation, and, sure enough, found out about the envelopes and numerous other bribes and emoluments offered to state legislators, and refused to seat him. The next year, Montana’s corrupted Governor appointed Clark to the Senate, and he served a full 8-year term.
Clark’s story went national, and became a rallying cry for clean government advocates. In 1912, President Taft, after doubling the number of corporations being broken up by the Sherman Act over what Roosevelt had done, championed the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators, something some Republicans today want to repeal) to prevent the kind of corruption Clark represented from happening again.
Meanwhile, in Montana, while the state legislature was fighting reforms, the citizens put a measure on the state ballot of 1912 that would outlaw corporations from giving any money of any sort to politicians. That same year, Texas and other states passed similar legislation (the corrupt Speaker of the House, Tom Delay [R-TX], was prosecuted under that law).
Montana’s anti-corruption law, along with those of numerous other states, persisted until 2010 when Justice Kennedy, writing for the 5-vote majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, declared in the Citizens United decision that in examining over 100,000 pages of legal opinions he could not find:
“…any direct examples of votes being exchanged for … expenditures.’ This confirms,” Kennedy wrote, “Buckley’s [the 1976 decision that money equals free speech] reasoning that independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate. Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, following on the 1976 Buckley case that grew straight out of the Powell Memo and was written in part by Lewis Powell, turned the definitions of corruption upside down.
That same year, they overturned the Montana law in the 2010 ATV v. Bullock ruling, essentially saying that money doesn’t corrupt politicians, particularly if that money comes from corporations who can “inform” us about current issues (the basis of the Citizens United decision) or billionaires (who, apparently the right-wingers on the Court believe, obviously know what’s best for the rest of us).
Thus, the reason the NRA can buy and own senators like McCain and Rubio (and Thom Tillis/$4 million, Cory Gardner/$3.8 million, Joni Ernst/$3 million, and Rob Portman/$3 million, who all presumably took money much faster and much more recently than even McCain) is because our Supreme Court has repeatedly said that corporate and #MorbidlyRich billionaire money never corrupts politicians. (The dissent in the Citizens United case is a must-read; truly mind-boggling and demonstrates beyond refutation how corrupted the right-wingers on the court, particularly Scalia and Thomas—who regularly attended events put on by the Kochs—were by billionaire and corporate money.)
So here we are. The Supreme Court has ruled, essentially, that the NRA can own all the politicians they want, and can dump unlimited amounts of poison into our political bloodstream.
Gun-control activists are only confronting the tip of the iceberg.
Activists struggle to fight for our climate, the rights of communities to be free of pollution from fracking or factory farms, the rights of citizens to health care and education, and dozens of other issues where the government has the ability to limit predatory corporate behavior. Unfortunately, because of corporate money, our federal and many state governments are making things worse for humans and the earth, while jacking up profits and tax cuts for corporations and billionaires.
But there are solutions. While we work as hard as we can to clean up America’s gun problem—and the Parkland activists have given us all a cause and a chance to make real change happen now—we also need to work to get money out of politics. It was financial corruption, after all, that got us in this gun mess in the first place—the history of the Heller decision is a horrible history of well-funded right-wing groups testing message after message until they found one that would stick with the Supreme Court.
There are three big ways to overturn the power that billionaires and corporations have seized through their corruption of the Supreme Court.
The first way is to replace enough members of the Court to ensure a moderate or even progressive majority. This looked like a very real possibility in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the national vote to Al Gore by over a half million votes, and, according to a recount done by a consortium of newspapers, would have lost, as the New York Times reported, the electoral vote as well had the Supreme Court not intervened and stopped the Florida recount.
The Times noted: “[A] statewide recount could have produced enough votes to tilt the election his [Gore’s] way, no matter what standard was chosen to judge voter intent.” Unfortunately, they buried that sentence in the 17th paragraph of a story with a misleading headline, because the country had just been attacked on 9/11 and Bush’s “legitimacy” was important to preserve during a time of national crisis. And, of course, none of that includes considerations of the considerable voter suppression that Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris engaged in, as documented by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, and Greg Palast for the BBC.
More recently, to keep the Court in GOP hands, Mitch McConnell simply flatly refused to even recognize President Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, waiting for Donald Trump to put in one of the most hard-right justices, Neal Gorsuch, since the 1920s.
The second way around Citizens United is for Congress to pass legislation specifically undoing Citizens United. Their authority to do this is found in the Constitution, Article 3, Section 2, which says: “[T]he Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.” Congress rarely does this (it’s referred to as “court stripping”), although banning judicial review was pushed really hard in the 1980s, including by Reagan himself.
The third and most likely way to get around this corruption of our Supreme Court is to do the same thing we did when the Court, in Dred Scott v. Sanford, ruled that African Americans were property and not people under the Constitution. We amended the Constitution (the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Numerous groups, from Public Citizen to Move To Amend, are working hard on this last effort to say that “Corporations are not people and aren’t entitled to the rights of personhood,” and “Money is not the same thing as speech.” If successful, such a constitutional amendment would overturn the “new laws” promulgated (unconstitutionally) by the court in 1886 (corporate personhood) and 1976 (money = “free speech”).
The NRA and their weapons-manufacturing buddies aren’t the only bad actors trying to damage our democratic republic through what were once illegal methods to corrupt public officials. Companies from the fossil fuel industry to the GMO industry to Silicon Valley have been doing it for years.
They’re all symptoms of the real and larger problem: that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and billionaires can own a virtually unlimited number of state and federal politicians. These newly empowered billionaires are now even bragging about that ownership, as you can see with the recent Koch brothers announcement that they’re injecting an eye-popping $400 million into the election this fall.
Only when we get money out of politics, like the good citizens of Montana did back in 1912, will we be able to deal with the NRA and their ilk on anything like a level playing field.