When we talk about the influence of money in politics, it's easy for our minds to turn immediately to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that allowed unlimited expenditures on elections by corporations. While that may have been a pivot point, the problem began to manifest itself decades earlier during the Watergate era.
That's according to John Nichols, a veteran reporter for The Nation magazine and the author of several books, including Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.
"After that, we saw a lot of very good campaign finance law written. At the core of it was a bipartisan consensus that we needed to do something to reduce the influence of money on politics," says Nichols. "It wasn't a clear fix, but it was great progress."
He says the Supreme Court decision in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down spending limits for campaigns was the beginning of the current crisis.
"No matter how much progress we made on this issue, it was vulnerable to intervention by the Supreme Court who were now inclined to respect limits. When the Citizens United decision came down, it became clear that very little of what we do to fix campaign finance law is likely to work. The Court is, at least at this point in our history, more likely to intervene on behalf of big money."
That big money influence has turned our politics from ideological to transactional.
"People who decide to put a substantial amount of money into the political process on behalf of a candidate or against another see it as a logical business expense rather than civic engagement," says Nichols. "This is not about left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican. People who put in money do so because they can achieve an end that they want."
That's a pretty dire outlook on the American electoral system for sure. But Nichols says all is not lost.
"As bad as things get in this country, we have shown the ability to repair it. It's not easy, but it can be done. A little over 100 years ago women couldn't vote, we didn't elect our U.S. Senators, and Congress couldn't levy an income tax. In a 10-year period, we passed three Constitutional Amendments so it can be done."
While he feels change is coming, Nichols doesn't know when that might be.
"I don't know when the breaking point will come, but it will come. What we're doing now is unsustainable. If we end up in an era where it costs billions of dollars to run for office, we are not going to have a functional society or functional economy. It's going to break. I'd like to fix it before that point because, if we wait, a helluva lot of people will suffer a lot of pain."
Nichols will speak in Salt Lake City on Thursday night at the Downtown Library as part of The Nation's 150th-anniversary speakers series.