Recent Supreme Court decisions on voting rights and political contributions have rescued the Republican Party from the brink of political oblivion and instead threaten to permanently undermine the very fabric of American democracy.
The court’s 5-4 decision last week in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission eliminated the aggregate cap on individual campaign donations. The ruling promises, in the words of dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer, to “open a floodgate” that will engulf American politics on an unprecedented scale. Ending limits on political contributions to federal candidates means that the court has willfully amplified the already powerful voices of the rich campaign-donor class. Chief Justice John Roberts countered Breyer with the reasoning that the decades-old limit on individual donations represented a violation of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. From this perspective, a dollar in campaign contributions has the equivalent power of $100,000, a notion that is absurd.
The court’s decision should be read in tandem with last year’s Shelby v. Holder case, which curtailed the Voting Rights Act and has inspired a spree of Republican-initiated voter-restriction laws across the nation. The impact of this decision is to abet Republicans in their efforts to put up sometimes insurmountable roadblocks for African Americans, Latinos and the poor to exercise their voting rights. Voter ID laws, changes to absentee ballot access and the purging of voter rolls are just some of the tactics used by conservatives to maintain political control at all costs.
Less than two years after President Barak Obama’s re-election, the GOP—backed by these two SCOTUS decisions—is flexing its muscles after forecasters predicted the party’s electoral doom.
Obama’s victory was marked by history-making shifts in both voter turnout and the makeup of the American electorate. African Americans, for the first time in history, turned out at a larger rate than whites. And the importance of this shift—despite the GOP’s likely success in maintaining congressional power in 2014—is that the White House is likely to be held by Democrats in 2016, in part due to demographic shifts that made the nation younger, more multicultural and multiethnic, and, relatively, more progressive in political orientation.
But something happened on the way to this vision of a more liberated future.
The Supreme Court has saved Republicans and is effectively using race and class to do it. The Shelby decision is especially abhorrent since it assaults the most vulnerable of our citizens in a naked effort to quash their political voices. Grass-roots conservatives, Tea Party activists and mainstream Republicans received the court’s message loud and clear, launching or amplifying a false narrative that the nation risked widespread voter fraud unless restrictive ID laws were enacted. But their new voter restrictions are actually designed to prevent black folks from voting, especially where they provided crucial electoral margins in the past two presidential elections. And Republican governors and state legislatures have exacerbated voter suppression strategies by curtailing or eliminating early voting in states that went blue in 2008 and 2012.
Allowing oligarchs even more voice through virtually unlimited campaign contributions compounds the discrimination happening at the grass-roots level. If Shelby represents a “bottom-up” assault against citizenship and democracy, the McCutcheon decision is a “top-down” consolidation of political power, asserting that the efforts of multibillionaires and multimillionaires to disproportionately influence our political process is a constitutionally protected right.
The Republican Party, rather than fighting for increased voting rights for all and limiting the corrupting influence of money in American politics, embraces voter restrictions that fly in the face of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a beloved community, and the party benefits from a sprawling financial network whose special interests focus more on profits than people.
Race, yet again, stands at the core of these political developments. Yet our inability to openly discuss institutional racism’s persistence in all facets of American society means that we ignore its ability to shape our national politics.
Since the high tide of Reaganism in the 1980s, we have known where the GOP stands on issues of race and democracy in America. The Supreme Court’s recent decisions place the court squarely on the side of powerful special interests and have emboldened those interests to use race and money as wedges in a ceaseless quest for economic control through political proxies eager to be purchased by the highest bidder.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor to The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.