The National Catholic Review
May 6 2015 - 10:37am | Daniel T. Dobrygowski
Human dignity requires an inclusive democracy

The presidential primary season has only just begun, with eight definite entrants, and many more waiting to announce. However, another selection, one that will actually determine who is elected, is almost over. This “invisible” primary centers on winning the favor of a few wealthy individuals and the SuperPACs (unlimited political spending machines shrouded in anonymity) they control. Regardless of who the eventual winner is, his or her election should not be a mere formality, a ratification of choices that a very small group has already made.

In the last three decades, decisions by the Supreme Court, and political campaigns’ logical choices based on those decisions, have turned campaign funding into a serious threat to inclusive democracy. Now, an open pipeline of money flows into elections at all levels. The foundational principles of one person, one vote and the fundamental duty of representatives to constituents are eroding in favor of a system where he who is willing to spend the most gets to control the agenda in Washington, in statehouses across the country, and even in the courts.

While writers and activists have spent years decrying the legal, social and ethical ramifications of this change, too often, the moral challenge is ignored. Catholics, however, have an explicit reason to support liberal, inclusive democracy: Only through democracy can the values of human dignity be fully expressed.

Granted, the Catholic Church might be accused of coming late to the support of liberal democracy. For centuries, it was the bulwark of feudalism and autocracy throughout Christendom. Even when the tide began to turn against monarchy, it did not embrace democratic reform readily. But when it did come around, near the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the church embraced democracy in strong, moral terms.

Gaudium et spes” recognized that moral political structures provide all citizens with “the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in … the political community and in the direction of public affairs.” Active participation and a realistic ability to shape governance are the hallmarks of true democracy and of the type of government that the church advocates. But active participation, inclusivity and accountability are the very qualities threatened by the accelerating influence of money on our political system.

In a 2014 meeting with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pope Francis warned that economic inequality threatens inclusive government and participatory democracy. More directly, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two political scientists at Princeton and Northwestern, recently defined the dramatic scope of how inequality corrupts politics. In examining almost 2,000 policy decisions made by Congress over 20 years, the researchers found that, overwhelmingly, those decisions aligned with the wishes of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, even at the expense of the majority of legislator’s constituencies. They called this “Economic Elite Domination.” Money doesn’t just influence government, it dominates it.

Politico reported in December that the 100 biggest donors to political campaigns gave almost as much the 4.75 million small donors in 2014. These so-called “mega-donors” buy themselves far greater influence than the small dollar donor, not to mention the vast majority of citizens who spend nothing on campaigns, who seem to believe that voting alone should be sufficient to have a say in their government.

Inclusive democracy and accountability cannot survive in this environment. Whether one comes from a Rousseauian notion of the sovereignty of the people or a Lockean individual rights ideal, anyone who values democracy should be alarmed that politics has devolved into a system where a small minority control virtually all of the decisions. Is this a government “of the people”?

This is doubly true if one believes, as the church seems to, that the moral obligation to ensure equal human dignity also requires an equal say in the decisions that affect our shared society. Where money is able to mute the voice of the poor, the voice of those who seek justice, even the voices speaking for our children, we can no longer say that our system holds the moral high ground against autocracy and despotism.

But all is not lost. Movements to turn the tide exist. The People’s Pledge managed to stem the flow of anonymous contributions during the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. Harvard Professor Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC, the so-called “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs,” is aimed at spending whatever it takes to elect a Congress that will dedicate to reducing the influence of money in politics. There have even been attempts to amend the Constitution. One failed in the Senate in 2014, but the advocacy group Move to Amend continues to build grassroots support to try again and even Hillary Clinton has spoken in support of such an amendment. One or more of these efforts may yet find success.

As Catholics, we should use our moral voice to push the topic of electoral corruption to the forefront in this election. Our voice, arguing that human dignity is inextricable from real participation in democracy, makes the authentic, moral case for the defense of democracy and thereby makes that defense more likely to succeed.

Daniel T. Dobrygowski is an attorney and MPA candidate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he conducts research on public governance, electoral integrity and transparency, among other topics.

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Chuck Kotlarz | 8/2/2015 - 11:07pm

The billion dollar donor class can influence not only presidential campaigns, but every state gubernatorial election, every one of the 535 congressional campaigns and each and every one of 7,382 state legislator elections. Does "free speech" of any average voter reach beyond their voting district? Clearly democracy has been compromised.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 8/2/2015 - 9:54pm

Anyone interested can see how our inability to regulate campaign spending is already affecting the 2016 Presidential race here.

Also here: "Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era."

Daniel Dobrygowski | 6/3/2015 - 1:10pm

There's an interesting new poll showing that large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats are fed up with the role of money in politics in the United States: New York Times article.

Despite this widespread agreement on the problem, very few in the poll thought it was the most important issue facing the country. However, without addressing this problem, it becomes more and more difficult to address those more important issues since Congress is so distracted by raising money. This is why it is important to continue to make the case that reform is necessary and to have a larger discussion about how that reform should take place.

Tom Maher | 5/30/2015 - 7:37am

The ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, legal analysis and statements are strongly opposed to the analysis and solutions of this post. The ACLU for almost a century is a proven non-partisan champion and defender of First Amendment rights such as free speech rights and a expert source on First Amendment interpretations of the U.S. Consistution by the Supreme Court.

Contrary to this post and the implications of this post the ACLU strongly recommended in a amicus brief the actions the Supreme Court took in its Citizens United decision. The ACLU amicus brief on the Citizens United case recommended the speech suppressing section of the McCann Feingold be ruled unconstitutional and previous supporting precedents be overturned as they were by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.

In public statements the ACLU strongly opposes the reversal of the Citizens United decision by constitutional amendment which could only be done by changing the First Amendment to allow government suppression of free speech. This post on the other hand encourages the reversal of Citizens United and decades of other free speech precedents to allow government suppression of free speech to achieve campaign financial reform. This post promotes the Move to Amend organization which is working on a radical, unprecedented and very dangerous constitutional amendment to change the First Amendment to allow the government to suppress free speech. This proposed amendment to the constitution would further allow the government to censor and control free speech during an election or primary. The government based on the government political views of the moment would decide what political issues were important and worthy to be heard and what issues were not worthy of being heard for the sake of efficiency of spending less on campaigns. The political concerns of private citizens and groups are pre-empted by a powerful government involved in regulating political speech and choices. The nations 220 year old free speech rights are set aside for the sake of more government control of speech in political campaigns. Such amendments effectively destroy First Amendment right of free political speech. Changing the First Amendment is an attack on First Amendment freedoms we now have. No one should support the loss of freedoms implied by having the government more involved in regulating political speech and ideas.

With the government in control limiting political free speech the government decides what topics may be addressed and by whom, for how long and when. Blackout periods would be reinstated suppressing all independent political speech by all parties before an election or primary. Since when is government so all-wise and knowing to be able to decide what political speech is important to people and what is not?

The free speech suppressing solutions promoted by this post are monstrous and far worse than any problem the nation may have with the campaign financing and expenditures that will result in the loss of freedoms to all Americans. The lessening of wide-open and robust debate and discussion of political issues by limiting free speech diminish democracy and the ability of people to petition the government and hold the government accountable to the people and have the government work for the people in recognizing and resolving grievances.

The speech suppressing solutions promoted in this post by groups such as Move to Amend are extremely dangerous attacks on our freedoms and on our First Amendment rights.

Unlike this posts attacks on free speech the ACLU supports and fought for free speech rights for corporations such as newspaper and political advocacy groups. The ACLU itself is a political advocacy corporation which is protected by the free speech interpretations in the Citizens United decision.

The idea presented in this post that somehow the Supreme Court is at fault for protecting and expanding the understanding of free speech rights is not what the ACLU stands for as most Americans would agree . To the ACLU and most Americans the First Amendment is a strength and benefit to American society and democracy that allows wide-open, robust debate and discussion of all topics without government censorship or suppression of independent free speech. The idea promoted by this post is the falsehood that Supreme Court champion of free speech has allowed significant harm to our political system by not having government suppression of the free speech of individuals and groups such as corporations. The ACLU unlike this post support more free speech as a solution not less free speech by suppressing speech dictated by government censorship. Free speech is a strength not a weakness and is a proven value for Americans and American democracy.

Chuck Kotlarz | 5/28/2015 - 10:49pm

“Freedom of speech” allows billionaires at the very least “to advance” candidates that want what billionaires want. Billionaire’s quest for freedom of speech is no secret, but how does democracy fit in? Achieving billionaire status required little if any democracy. No public vote was ever required.

Will billionaires perhaps one day “fast track” elections? If billionaire “freedom of speech” today determines which candidates advance to the ballot, will billionaire freedom of speech one day determine our life expectancy, education of our kids and grandkids, our safety, our internet, etc?

Life expectancy is already on average three years shorter in billionaire freedom of speech states vs. California. Black Americans residing in billionaire freedom of speech states are 40% less likely to have bachelors, graduate or a professional degree than Blacks in pro-democracy states. Traffic fatality rates in billionaire freedom of speech states run twice that of pro-democracy states. Even the internet is 25% slower in billionaire freedom of speech states.

In the 2012 election cycle, a little over 200 people (.00007 percent of the population) contributed more than $500 million to super PACs alone.

Reinstating a 90% top federal income tax rate bears considerable merit for 99.99993% of Americans in selecting candidates of their choice.

Tom Maher | 5/29/2015 - 9:42am

The genius and power of the First Amendment is its simplicity. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law on the freedom of religion, speech, the press, or peaceful assembly.

The First Amendment reads in full:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There are no qualifications as to who may enjoy these rights. Any person or group has all these rights enabling them to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. So from a First Amendment perspective there is no legal basis in law to exclude billionaires or any other group from these freedoms. Everyone has these rights as individuals or groups of citizens.

Chuck Kotlarz | 5/30/2015 - 7:32pm

The first amendment presumes a republic…a form of government in which power resides in the people. Is reality perhaps that billionaires have pirated not only our politics but also our elections? Will proxy candidates of billionaires dominate the 2016 races?

David Koch and his brother expect to spend nearly a billion dollars on 2016 election races. Voters, however, have long forgotten their overwhelming rejection of the libertarian platform from David Koch’s 1980 vice-presidential run.

A childlike trust of wealth coupled with Reagan’s slogan, “government is the problem” may become a giant leap backward to perhaps the greatest waste of all, the waste of idle plants and labor. In the sixty-four years prior to FDR’S New Deal and social security, unemployment typically ranged from 12% to 25% during seventeen economic downturns. After 1949, unemployment never once reached 12%. Federal Reserve chairman Marriner Eccles (1935-1948) felt social security and unemployment insurance were essential to preventing economic depressions.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/26/2015 - 8:31pm

There has been a significant amount of discussion about the means to redress these issues, in the comments to this column and elsewhere. I think that's all to the good. Organizations like Represent.US, MayDayPAC, and the Move to Amend each make arguments that their's is the right path. A robust discussion about how to fix the problem is all to the good.

Even more vital, however, is the necessity to understand that there is a problem. Much of this article describes how the problem of institutional corruption or the inequitable influence of money in politics has derailed our political system. Acceptance that we have a problem is not a partisan issue, just like with regard to economic inequality, there are people on all sides of American politics pointing to this problem. I believe that we need to focus on drawing attention to the problem itself before we can talk about solutions.

This article gives people who are interested in morality, and especially those who look to the Church as a moral guide, a way to talk about these issues to our friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens.

Tom Maher | 5/22/2015 - 12:49pm

The 2010 Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court Decision defends free speech as all Supreme Courts have always done since U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791. As the First Amendment free speech clause says " Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ..." Free speech means among other things that laws can not be created to suppress or censor or regulate free speech, including political speech.

Chief Justice Roberts in his concurring opinion in the Citizens United decision says " The Government urges us in this case to uphold a direct prohibition on political speech. It asks us to embrace a theory of the First Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern. Its theory , if accepted, would empower the Government to prohibit newspapers from running editorials or opinion pieces supporting or opposing candidates for office , so long as the newspapers were owned by corporations - as the major ones are. First Amendment rights could be confined to individuals subverting the vibrant public discourse that is the foundation of our democracy."

First Amendment free speech rights must remain available to all individuals and groups as they always have been. New Constitutional amendments to restrict or limit the availability of First Amendment free speech rights undermines the great benefit of free speech rights of enabling wide open and uncensored debate of issues by all parties and groups. Suppressing or censoring speech of any group by Constitution amendment is a very bad idea that goes against allowing First Amendment free speech for all on an equal basis that Americans have always enjoyed and benefited by.

Most citizens will not support any change to the Constitution that does not allow free speech for everyone without qualifications or restrictions based on who the speaker is or allows the government to suppresses or censors or limit the free speech of any person or group including groups organized as corporations as most groups are today such as the Citizens United public advocacy group.

First Amendment free speech rights must remain unmodified as they have very successfully been for over 220 years. A government role as a censor or regulator or suppressor of speech should remain prohibited by the First Amendment as the Supreme Court decided in the 2010 Citizen United decision.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/22/2015 - 2:32pm

The amendment process mentioned in the article is just one avenue that reform can take. If that goes too far, there are several others mentioned.

The idea that the First Amendment prohibits all regulation of things that facilitate speech (in this case money) is not supported historically, legally, or even reasonably. The government prevents all kinds of speech for a variety of reasons (one cannot yell "Fire" in a movie theater, one cannot threaten others, one cannot incite riots or armed rebellion). Restrictions are also permissible on those things that might facilitate speech (a loudspeaker facilitates speech, yet the government can regulate its decibel level).

Many of the consequences of Buckley v. Valeo and its progeny (including Citizens United) were unforeseen by the justices ruling on those cases. We have been able to see how the open tap of political money has significantly changed our political processes. Furthermore, we are well within Constitutional boundaries if we seek to regulate spending in support of our republican and democratic values and the virtues that those values serve.

Tom Maher | 5/26/2015 - 7:53am

All laws created by Congress must be within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. When the First Amendment free speech prohibition to Congress "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" is violated by a law the Supreme Court being faithful to the Constitution will rule the part of the law unconstitutional as it did in the 2010 Citizens United case. It is no surprise that portions of the 2002 McCann Feingold law that directed the FEC to suppress political speech before a primary or election by criminal penalties including fines and imprisonments would be considered very heavy-handed government censorship and suppression of political free speech worthy of a communist dictatorship and a clear violation of the First Amendment and against everything America stands for as the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v FEC.

The speech suppression portion of the McCann Feingold law was ruled unconstitutional in less than eight years of law being enacted. It is latest example of many Supreme Court rulings against election reforms laws that impose government censorship or suppression of speech that has regularly occurred in the last fifty years. But when a case such as Citizens United v FEC shows that the government is actually expecting to impose censorship and suppress speech in gross violation of the First Amendment it is time to make sure that all the pretexts to denying free speech are removed. Congress can not make viable campaign reform laws in violation of the First Amendment as Congress has repeatedly done for decades. However changing the First Amendment to allow censorship and suppression of speech especially on an selective or unequal basis is not a viable campaign reform strategy.

Your objections are hyper-technical and do not show the proper respect and regard for the central importance of free speech in American democracy and society. It is very tedious of you to declare individuals and groups really don't fully enjoy free speech rights because shouting fire in a crowded theater is not free speech and other rare hyper technical very rare speech contexts. Such rare speech in the common law has always been a tort or a crime that could physically kill or harm other people by misdirection. Also falsehoods said with malice or reckless disregard of the truth are considered libel and legally actionable to the extent the falsehood has caused provable damage. Such speech is rare and is not considered free speech.

Over the last 220 years of the Constitution Supreme Court rulings have expanded the understanding of what is free speech rights and has never attempted to limit free speech to convenience legislators and government bureaucrats. The First Amendment and the other nine Amendments in the Bill of Rights (The first ten amendments of the Constitution) are meant to protect individual private citizens and groups from the whims and wiles of government. Modifying the free speech rights of the First Amendment to deny rights to anyone makes no sense.

Your idea that the Church surrendered its free speech rights in order to get tax exemptions is a mysterious legal theory. Free speech rights are not lost by new laws being enacted. Rights or powers of government defined in the Constitution can not be substituted for incentives and or other things by new laws enacted by Congress. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and can not be altered by ordinary legislation. Only an Constitutional amendment process can modify the Constitution. The Constitution amendment process should not be used to take First Amendment free speech rights away from any individual or group.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/24/2015 - 1:43pm

Free speech is not absolute and neither does the First Amendment demand that all spending on so-called "political speech" be without regulation. Your argument is essentially that Citizens United was rightly decided, which is up for debate. You happen to agree with the decision, but that does not mean that disagreement is impossible or even that Citizens United was right.

The notion that speech that is regulated is "not considered free speech" is simply an example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy - if speech is regulated, you claim, it cannot be free. Your definition of free speech becomes recursive. The notion that "free speech" is unregulated speech tells us nothing about what kind of speech can or should be regulated.

There's no reason you should be familiar with the law regarding tax exempt organizations, but there is no mystery in the idea that the Church and other tax exempt organizations cannot participate in political campaigns (in this way, their speech rights are limited in exchange for the tax exemption). See this very brief primer on the IRS (here).

Finally, no one is arguing that speech should be limited to convenience legislatures or bureaucrats, your argument here is a strawman invoked often in the service of the corrupt status quo. The current system is far more convenient for politicians, since they need only spend their time on fundraising and forget about addressing policy questions. Constraining money, on the other hand, will allow actual free speech to flourish in the way it historically has in American politics. It is one, necessary, step on the road toward a more representative government.

Tom Maher | 5/25/2015 - 9:57am

There should be nothing controversial about the simple fact that laws not allowing Citizens United to broadcast the political documentary it produced is suppressing free speech. The view that a corporation such as a newspaper organization has First Amendment free speech rights if there was ever any doubt has now been formally confirmed by the Supreme Court in Citizens United decision which is now the proper legal interpretation of the First Amendment.

The 2015 ACLU document titled "Campaign Finance Reform" you presented under the word "legal" opposes any campaign finance reform that limits free speech including attempts to change the First Amendment to limit free speech. A careful reading of the ACLU document shows the ALCU supports the free speech interpretation of Citizens United.

The ACLU document says:
Unfortunately, legitimate concern over the influence of "big money" in politics has led some to propose a constitutional amendment that would reserve the decision -- by limiting the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
The ACLU firmly opposes this approach. In our view, the answer to concerns over escalating cost of political campaigns is to expand, not limit, the resources available for political advocacy.

The ACLU document ends saying "Our system of free expression is built on the premise that people get to decide what speech they want to hear; it is not the role of the government to make that decision for them."

Advocating a constitutional change to reverse Citizens United is highly controversial. Catholics and other citizens should be made aware of just how radical and controversial the approach of using a constitutional amendment to nullify the Citizens United decision is. As the Supreme Court and ACLU pointed out free speech would be limited. Limiting speech makes no sense in a free society where the people ultimately decide what speech they want to hear. More speech not less speech is needed for people to fully determine for themselves what is going on in society free of government censorship and limiting speech.

The ACLU itself is a public advocacy non-profit corporation just like the Citizen United. How absurd would it be for the ACLU to be told by the FEC as Citizens United was that the ACLU could not broadcast political messages on Civil Liberties as it has done for almost a century? Catholic and other citizens are harmed by government suppressing free speech of organizations like the ACLU that publically advocate Civil Liberties such as free speech rights just because they are corporations.

As the 2015 ACLU document says "In a 2010 case called Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that independent political expenditures by unions and corporations (including non-profit corporations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, and the ACLU) are protected under the First Amendment and are not subject not subject to restriction by the government." The ACLU acknowledges that the ACLU itself is protected from the government speech restrictions by the Citizens United decision.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/26/2015 - 8:24pm

First, the article doesn't advocate for constraining speech (although Congress may and does, of course, reasonable constrain speech in some cases). Arguments about how speech has been constrained and whether Citizen's United was wrongly decided go off on a tangent from this particular article. I shouldn't have allowed myself to get dragged off into this tangent. The article advocates for constraining the influence of money in politics. These problems are well known and the notion that the unfettered spending of money is somehow exactly the same as speech exacerbates the problems.

As for your point about the ACLU as a public advocacy non-profit corporation, you make a fundamental (yet completely reasonable, since you are likely unfamiliar with the nuances of the tax code and laws relating to non-profits and their effect on corporate behavior) error. The ACLU Foundation is the 501(c)(3) tax-free entity and it cannot advocate for particular results in political campaigns. The branch of the ACLU with which most people are more familiar is a 501(c)(4) organization and it is taxed regularly and therefore can engage in advocacy. While your argument makes some intuitive sense, as far as it goes, when one understands the actual facts relating to tax status and speech, your hypothetical about the ACLU being prevented from advocacy is not relevant here. I have tremendous respect for the ACLU and the important work of the people in that organization, however, that the ACLU has been beating a certain drum for decades does not mean that the ACLU is always right.

Getting to the real heart of your argument, however, you seem to argue that a Constitutional amendment is not the right way to go. This is an argument over means of solving a problem. I hope that we as a polity can have that argument soon and I hope to see your strenuous case against a Constitutional amendment in a publication such as this one day (whether I agree with you or not). You argue that a Constitutional amendment is radical, and I agree with that. Some people think that a radical solution is called for and I would leave it to them to make the argument.

That being said, my article simply makes the case that we should have that argument. I do not know what the solution should be, but I am glad that there are groups working to find a solution. What I do know is that the problems of money constraining our politics (call it “campaign finance” or “institutional corruption” or what you will) does not receive the attention that it should and that Catholics, especially, have an important part to play in bringing attention to the problem and in crafting a solution.

Charles Erlinger | 5/19/2015 - 2:54pm


My claim is that the principal moral problem is lies, not the only problem.

One other point. While the billionaire in your example may be truly convinced that his or her taxes should be lower, this is a conclusion. The conclusion might or might not truly, logically follow from some premises, and the premises themselves might be true or false. If false, they might result either from ignorance or from lies. There is no good way of absolving a conscientious voter from looking into the matter or at minimum thinking it through. If that is too much trouble, then we get the result that we deserve.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/20/2015 - 10:45am

Perhaps I should have said "the real moral problem" rather than "the real problem" - I have no doubt that you believe other problems abound in the world. But that's just semantic quibbling - we disagree on the problem and, likely, solutions.

Perhaps I have too much faith in the notion of a "marketplace of ideas," but I believe that truth claims can be evaluated when all views are expressed equally or where the capacity exists to do so. I agree with you that I would prefer truth in advertising and especially in political speech, but I am concerned about how we evaluate truth claims.

Who will determine what is "true" versus what is a mere "conclusion"? I believe that, if we go down that road, we may suppress unpopular speech as "untrue", which doesn't follow with our values as a country.

Reform in campaign finance and in the accrual of political influence expands the expression, while other mechanisms would tend to limit expression. I prefer to expand it.

Chuck Kotlarz | 5/19/2015 - 5:34am

Citizens United could also be called “Citizens & Ghosts United” because of the “ghosts don’t pay taxes loophole”. The loophole’s legal name is different but the tax result is the same. For example, nobody paid taxes on the Walton family inheritance. Does the ghost (inheritance) of Sam Walton perhaps haunt legislators?

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/20/2015 - 10:46am

That's quite clever. I feel like there's a whole book in that final line of yours.
Thank you.

Daniel Dobrygowski | 5/18/2015 - 2:24pm

Hello everyone.

I'm the author. Thanks for reading.

This article has been up for a little while now, and stirred up some commentary, so I thought I'd weigh in. These responses are in chronological order (oldest comment first).

Fred Scarnati makes the argument that we have known about corruption for 30 years and implies it is too late to do anything about it. I believe that the post-Citizens United world is different and allows for worse abuses than the post-Buckley v. Valeo world we have been living in for 30 years. But I do agree that it is a matter of degree of corruption rather than something wholly different. I disagree, however, that we should not at least try to work to make our government more transparent and more responsive to voters rather than funders. I think that there is significant work to be done and I stand by the article's reasons for why we should care.

Joseph J Dunn argues that, with respect to the Constitutional amendment route, the suggestions are too sweeping and will take away some supposed free speech rights from organizations, including both non-profits and for-profit firms. While the amendment mentioned is just one of many proposed reforms, I think what Mr. Dunn may have forgotten that Churches and 501(c)(3) organizations are already barred from much political speech as a prerequisite for maintaining their nonprofit status. Even if this amendment passes as written, priests, imams, rabbis, and lay people will continue to have their first amendment rights, and no one is challenging those rights here. We have gone most of our history without inanimate objects and legal fictions (such as corporations) having expressive rights, so I do not see the "loss" or those "rights" as particularly worrisome when doing so ensures that actual people are better able to express their rights.

Tom Mahler, as far as I can tell, hinges his argument on the notion that "All human associations and groups have always been protected by First Amendment Freedoms" which is demonstrably untrue. As most relevant to readers of this Catholic Review, the Catholic Church as an organization (as I've said above) trades its political speech for non-profit status. Its First Amendment religious expression rights are, of course, not implicated in that, but it cannot advocate for voting for specific candidates, for example. Mr. Mahler also seems to regard these reforms as some sort of left-wing conspiracy and questions my authority on the matter. Besides saying that I do not believe there is any conspiracy here and that I have significant experience in election law from my legal practice and knowledge of our church's teachings from decades of study of scripture, the writings of the church fathers, and more modern Catholic commentary, I will let my assertions in the article stand on their own.

Corey Mondello reminds us that those of us who identify as LGTBQ are also deserving of a recognition of their human dignity. A non sequitur, but food for thought nonetheless.

Chuck Kotlarz brings up the point that many elected officials toe the funders' line out of fear. If anything, I think this should energize Catholics' efforts in this area. Fear and corruption are corrosive to democracy and the state of both should worry us.

Charles Erlinger claims that the real problem is not money but rather lies. I think that, even if all political speech was truthful (and we can all pray for that day), there would still be a significant problem when the discrepancies in spending are as vast as they are now. Imagine as an example a billionaire who truly wants Congress to lower his taxes and will buy up all available air time to make his case. Imagine as well, a nun who works with the poor. She truly believes that Congress should work to alleviate poverty. Both these claims are true, but only one, the one who can spend more, will be heard and served. So, while truth is vital, I believe that some modicum of equality in elections is also important.

Charles Erlinger | 5/13/2015 - 12:26pm

If most of the big money (or even big lots of small money) related to support of political candidates is spent either directly or indirectly for "messaging" then it seems that the most rational concern about its influence on politics should hinge on whether the messages are truths, not on how much money can be spent to utter the truths.

Determining the truth or falsity of political speech pertaining to the past and present is empirically doable and if the speech is determined to be false the speaker can be categorized as either ignorant or a liar. Determining the truth or falsity of speech pertaining to the future, a subject of much of political expression, is a different matter. Speech pertaining to the future is usually designed to appeal to fear. If candidate X is elected then catastrophe Y will occur. This is a conclusion presumably following from some premises that may be either truths or lies. The fearful conclusion might follow from the premises or not. But even if it follows, it still might not be an accurate forecast, since no one can predict the future.

None of the uncertainties that a voter faces with regard to the opportunities for political choice justify blaming money used to pay for "messaging" unless the messages are lies. Rationally, lying is the principal moral problem associated with political speech, whether there is a whole lot of it paid for by big money or a little of it.

It is politicians, for example, elected lawmakers, who consciously decide to accept the guidance and even the dictatorship of lobbyists in the writing of unjust laws, and, for another example, elected judges, who consciously decide to make unjust judicial decisions. The messaging is what helps to put craven and sycophantic politicians, whether legislators, administrators or judges, in positions to do harm to the common good. But who puts the politicians in positions to do harm? That’s on us

Chuck Kotlarz | 2/1/2016 - 4:45pm

How many congressman cater to this incredibly powerful Citizens United coalition out of sheer terror? If you don't want Citizens United interest groups backing your next primary challenger, you'll fall in line and you'll do it now.

"When economic power became concentrated in a few hands, then political power flowed to those possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny." John Adams

"Progressive taxes are required to prevent a permanent rich aristocracy that then buys government and ends democracy as happened in England”. Thomas Jefferson.

"As riches increase and accumulate in few hands, the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard." Alexander Hamilton. Note: republic…a form of government in which power resides in the people and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law.

"You can have great wealth or democracy, you can have one or the other, but not both”. Justice Brandeis

In the 2012 election cycle, a little over 200 people (.00007 percent of the population) contributed more than $500 million to super PACs alone.

Tom Maher | 5/12/2015 - 12:29am

Since when does a Kennedy School of Government MPA candidate have any credibility and ability to accurately speak on Catholic theological implications of campaign finance reform with a view to mobilizing Catholics' political support for extremely radical left wing campaign reform measures including seriously advocating passage of an new Constitutional amendment that would effectively broadly modify the First Amendment of the Constitution denying its applicability to institutions and most groups of people who happened to be organized as corporations?

According to this post Catholics theology somehow requires the demonization of corporations for Catholic theology to be properly modern to suit the author. The author's contradictory theological/political premise is that greater political inclusiveness requires excluding other vast groups of people from having First Amendment Freedoms.

As usual campaign reform is its own worst enemy. Campaign reform is allowed and possible under the Constitution but for almost half a century manic campaign reformers have been found by federal courts to run seriously afoul of the First Amendment free speech especially in censoring or suppressing First Amendment political speech which is the most fundamental and essential part of American democracy.

First Amendment rights have always been fully enjoyed by religions such as the Catholic Church even though the Church is very much a corporate entity. The press such as the New York Times or the Washington Post have had full Fist Amendment rights and are corporations. For example the landmark 1964 free speech decision by the Supreme Court is the New York Times v. Sullivan.

For all human enterprises people have always organized themselves into groups such as corporations for all services and enterprises. All human associations and groups have always been protected by First Amendment Freedoms. Any attempt to limit or restrict First Amendment Freedoms is morally, legally, intellectually and practically backward. Catholics and all citizens are very ill advised to support any campaign reform proposals that in any way undermine First Amendment Freedoms which all citizens have richly benefited by for over 220 years of the U.S. Constitution.

Corey Mondello | 5/8/2015 - 11:25am

"Human dignity" .... is that offered to the LGBT community from the Catholic church? [sound or crickets] ...... I didnt think so !

Joseph J Dunn | 5/8/2015 - 7:26pm

Whatever one's disagreements with the "Citizens United" decision, with PACs, or with other aspects of campaign finance, the text of the proposed constitutional amendment, available at is troubling.

Section 1 of the proposed amendment, by plain reading (and that's how the courts would have to read it) strips the following rights from large corporations and small companies alike:
the free expression of religion (for example, by asserting a privilege to avoid government mandates that conflict with religious tenets); freedom of speech, and of the press (America Media?) the right peaceably to assemble (to hold meetings, conferences and conventions free of government intrusion), the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances (as, for example, by joint letters from the local or national Chamber of Commerce or other business associations), the right to be secure against warrantless search and seizure; the right to own and hold property against taking except by due process of law; the right against public confiscation without just compensation; the right, in criminal prosecutions, to a speedy and fair trial by an impartial jury, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, the right to confront witnesses, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses, and the right to assistance of counsel at trial, the right in common law (or civil law) to a trial by jury; the right against excessive fines and unusual punishments.

This plain reading applies with no distinction between not-for-profit (tax-exempt) entities and for-profit entities. It applies to churches, mosques and synagogues, to hospitals and homeless shelters, convents and monasteries, since none of these are natural persons, and Section 1 of the proposed Amendment provides clearly that "The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only."

Is this proposed amendment really intended as campaign reform? This loss of precious rights seems an awfully high, and unnecessary, price to pay. This proposed amendment should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Fred Scarnati | 5/8/2015 - 8:44pm

Daniel: We have known and understood how money has bought elections for more than thirty years. We've watched television, read the newspapers and magazines, and listened to the radio. However, while all the concerned members of the media and many others were making us aware of our democracy being sold nothing happened to stop it. Americans were too busy making a meager living, or just to complacent to act. And more important those who were in positions of power who could have stood up... didn't. Meanwhile congress and the SUPREME court sold their souls for money at the expense of our college age students and their parents, the middle class. the elderly, the sick, and the poor. We have now come full circle: Taxation without representation. God help America, because no one else will.
Fred Scarnati