Money in politics is dangerous to democracy

Last week, the House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the US Capitol began a series of public hearings in prime time. If you missed them, you can check out an ongoing list of highlights here.

As expected, Donald Trump’s election fraud lies and threats of violence have taken center stage at the hearings as direct causes of the violence that unfolded on January 6th. Despite having repeatedly been given evidence to the contrary, Trump and his allies brazenly pushed the “Big Lie” among supporters that the 2020 election was stolen and that they needed to “fight back” in order to right that alleged wrong.

What has also garnered attention is the role that money played in enabling Trump’s attack on our democracy. At last night’s hearing, the committee revealed that Trump’s campaign fundraised off election fraud lies and told donors that their money would be used to fund the “Official Election Defense Fund.” In reality, however, this fund didn’t even exist, and very little of the money raised was actually used for election-related litigation.

Instead, most of the money was funneled to the “Save America PAC” created by Trump two days after the election, which took funds from Trump’s small donors, combined it with millions from wealthy donors, and then used it to promote the Big Lie. The PAC gave $5 million to Event Strategies Inc., the company that organized the “Save America” rally at the White House Ellipse that immediately preceded the Capitol attack on January 6th. This is in addition to the $3 million that Trump affiliates personally boasted of raising for the rally from a handful of dark money groups bankrolled by ultra-wealthy donors like Publix supermarket heiress Julie Jenkins Fancelli.

The Ellipse rally was, for all intents and purposes, the staging ground for the Capitol riot. It gave Trump and his far-right friends a platform with which to spew their lies and encourage their supporters to attack the Capitol two miles away. But, as we’re now learning, that platform was only made possible by the millions in funding that organizers received from the donors that financed the rally.

The Capitol assault made clear the urgent need to combat election misinformation and hate speech in America. But it also underscored the equally urgent need to reform our political system to dilute the power and influence of big money. January 6th was a clear and flagrant assault on American democracy, but it was only possible because of decades of groundwork laid by anti-democratic right-wing billionaires and lawmakers. They have spent years moving the United States closer and closer to an oligarchy by bankrolling campaigns and events just like the Ellipse rally and, in the process, have undermined the most basic building blocks of our democracy.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have only made it easier for the ultra-rich to use their wealth to wage successful battles against our democracy. Since the infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling, billionaire donors have poured nearly 40 times more money into federal elections and the number of Super PACs and dark money groups has exploded. More recent rulings – most notably FEC vs. Ted Cruz for Senate which made it drastically easier for wealthy individuals to (legally) bribe candidates – have only exacerbated this problem.

The conservative justices on the Supreme Court would have you believe that money equals speech. But money is not speech at all – instead, it is power. All of us have the opportunity to contribute to our favored political causes and campaigns and make our voices heard, but only the rich have the financial power to realistically make use of that opportunity. This drowns out the speech of everyone else in America and, as we saw on January 6th, the consequences of this unbridled power can sometimes be dire.

Let’s hope that lawmakers leave the hearings with a renewed commitment to hold elected officials that tell lies and stoke violence accountable. While they’re at it, they should also leave with a commitment to reform our broken campaign finance system that gives right-wing billionaires and demagogues the megaphones which they use to spew their venom in the first place.

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