We are living in the middle of the Second Gilded Age. The American political system needs major reform to cope with the malign impact of elite economic interests on both electoral outcomes and the policies that our elected officials enact (or fail to enact). We need another Progressive Movement that cuts across partisan lines to push for the structural reform that is essential to re-democratizing our elections so that we can elect better men and women and allow them to more easily do what they think is right when in office. To achieve this, we need an educated public that presses for such reforms. Catholics who believe in Catholic social teaching should be key players in this push to rid our politics of the poison that is plutocracy in order to protect the dignity of all and advance the common good.
This topic—Money & Politics: Is Washington for Sale?—was recently addressed at a conference sponsored by the Franciscan Action Network (FAN) and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR), where I am a graduate fellow. While some responded with a more definitive and unequivocal “Yes!” to the question at hand than others, there was a strong consensus that economic elites have a disproportionate and unjust impact on American politics. IPR Director Stephen Schneck contrasted the ideals of democracy with “the extraordinarily unfair influence of money” in our political system. He explained that while religions are about the common good, a politics of money is a politics of self-interest. The two cannot be reconciled.
Kathy Saile of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained the right and corresponding duty to participate in society and contribute to the common good. But participation is thwarted when those with money dominate the political system. The rights of the average citizen are violated when their voice is drowned out by the sound of the rich cutting checks for political candidates. Aaron Scherb of Common Cause argued that the ultra-wealthy are trying to turn American politics into a spectator sport. And too often, they are the only ones getting elected to office these days. Aura Kanegis of the American Friends Service Committee explained that people at the grassroots level are getting more cynical about politics. And as Rev. Stacy Martin said, “Even a benign oligarchy is an oligarchy.”
Scherb noted that while quid pro quo corruption is relatively rare, it still has a corrosive impact. It shapes what is on the agenda. It gives those who donate large sums greater access and influence. Scherb cited a Senator who said that he would not call anyone who gave him less than $100. And even college students who aspire to public office begin to take political positions that will help their future electoral prospects—those shared by economic elites—rather than focusing on those that might best serve the common good.
Patrick Carolan of FAN described how nearly every political issue is affected by the money in politics, from immigration reform to climate change to countless others. He put the impact in stark terms, saying that we see more people at soup kitchens and deported back to Central America to die from the violence they attempted to escape because of these policies, which have been shaped by economic elites. Stacy Martin agreed, arguing that people on the margins are the ones who are most harmed by the status quo.
Catholic University professor William Barbieri rightly noted that money has fueled partisanship. It has also fueled ideological polarization. The inability of Congress to seriously address the most pressing issues this country faces is in part because of the distorting impact of money. Politicians can no longer find a middle ground and they are punished for seeking it.
What can be done to reinvigorate democracy in the US? A number of possibilities were mentioned. Scherb spoke about same day voter registration, having Election Day as a national holiday, and making absentee voting easier. Craig Holman of Public Citizen said the most direct way is to pass a constitutional amendment that would no longer allow the Supreme Court to overturn restrictions on campaign donations. Measures could perhaps be enacted to ensure greater transparency.
The success of a democracy is tied to the strength of its middle class. When inequality skyrockets, it is not simply a threat to economic justice, but the stability and efficacy of free and democratic institutions. These institutions must not become outdated—left unable to cope with changing economic circumstances or reinforcing the injustices they are designed to resolve. This is the threat we face today. For those who want progressive policy changes, these structural reforms cannot be overlooked. And for true conservatives—those who wish to preserve that which is good—we have reached a moment where the right kind of reform is essential for preserving our values and the form of government we so rightly hold dear.