Government for the rich, by the rich

Big money wins elections. Of the 435 house elections in 2012, the candidate who spent the most money won 95 percent of the time. Less than 1 percent of Americans donate 68 percent of all the election funding. Therefore, 1 percent of Americans control the outcome of 95 percent of our elections. Prior to 1976, American legislation used to stop the rich from donating huge money to political campaigns, stopping corruption. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 to invalidate American legislation that stopped corruption in our political system. Now the rich donate vast amounts of money with the intent of affecting legislation. 

Historically, America has tried to block involvement of the rich, corporations, and banks in our election process. In 1907, the Tillman Act was the first law that prohibited corporations and national banks from contributing to presidential or congressional campaigns. In 1911, the Federal Corrupt Practices Act set spending limits for all congressional candidates. That very same act was amended in 1925 to ban corporate contributions to federal campaigns, and it set a $25,000 spending limit for Senate candidates. In 1974, Congress further amended the Federal Corrupt Practices Act creating the Federal Elections Commission to oversee and enforce the law. Presidential candidates could now spend $10 million for the primary and $20 million for the general election. All of these laws and amendments were an attempt to avoid corruption and influence of the rich on our electoral democracy. In 1976, this all changed, when Sen. James Buckley filed the lawsuit Buckley v. Valeo. Francis Valeo was an ex. official of the Federal Elections Commission whom Buckley charged with violating his First Amendment rights: the right to free speech and association.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governmental restrictions and imitations of independent expenditures in campaigns and in association was a violation. The Court stated that, “these practices do not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption” and “they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views” and ruled in favor of Buckley. Reversing the legislation that set spending limits on or by candidates, individuals, and groups made changes to our campaign finance system without a single piece of legislation being made, discussed, or voted on. This enables the rich and corporations to contribute vast sums of money to any and all candidates, and that’s exactly what they do. 

For example, the Koch brothers, tied at number 5 on The Top 400 Forbes Richest Americans, donate vast amounts of money to campaigns with the intention of affecting legislation. Charles and David Koch have a personal net worth in excess of $21.5 billion each. They donated $1,463,799 dollars to George W. Bush’s campaign for president. President Bush cut taxes on the rich — people who earn more than $250,000 dollars a year, like the Koch brothers. This saved the Koch brothers millions of dollars, eclipsing their political contribution. Included in the Bush tax cuts was a continued lowering of the federal estate tax, also known as inheritance tax. President Barack Obama and the (Republican-controlled) Senate who all received campaign contributions from the Koch brothers lowered the “inheritance” tax to 35 percent. This would save the Koch brothers’ heirs to their fortunes in excess of $8.7 billion each. 

Politicians are forced to spend seven out of 10 hours fundraising to win election or re-election. That means seven out of 10 hours politicians are not doing the job the American public elected them to do. This horrible reality can cause honest politicians to succumb to the demands of rich donors, so they can reclaim the time to govern. This reality rewards great fundraisers who aren’t necessarily great leaders.

The current Bernie Sanders campaign is a strong argument that the absence of the rich and corporations in politics can result in an affirmation of American democracy with small individual donations, on average $27. No private jets for transportation, no corporate contributor for staff and media, Sanders has been solely operating from frequent small contributions. Bernie Sanders is dangerous to the current political system because he repeatedly says, “I can’t be bought. I’m not for sale.”

But today the American people have 32 percent of the voting power. The richest 1 percent of the richest 1 percent have 68 percent of the voting power. If we are to remain a democracy as established as “by the People, for the People,” we need to change our campaign finance system that causes government for the rich, by the rich. Our government needs to abolish and overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling and enhance current and new legislation to stop corruption. 

Again, Big Money wins elections 95 percent of the time. The rich and corporations are not going to stop making campaign contributions because their record profits are the direct result. Politicians should spend more time governing than raising money. One percent of Americans shouldn’t control 95 percent of our elections. Real damage is being done with the Supreme Court ruling to allow “free speech” to merge with “contributions.” Our democracy is being corrupted for the rich, by the rich.


Sean Riva went to Indian Mountain School and Millbrook School. He lives in Manhattan, works as a fashion photographer, and is doing course work at SUNY Purchase. This column is part of a paper he wrote for one of his courses. He can be reached at sr@seanriva.com or seanrivaphotography on Instagram.