Money and Democracy

October 2, 2012
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J.J. Goldberg

And so we ask: Is there a Jewish ethic of campaign finance?

There are two ways to approach the question. On the one hand, how could there be when our sages (of blessed memory) never considered the possibility of a popularly elected presidency, much less multimillion-dollar election campaigns with 30-second television spots?

On the other hand, how could there not be, given the emergence of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson as the largest single campaign donor in history, and the consequent public debate over his hard-line Middle East views as a driving force in the presidential campaign? When one man’s decisions can stir angry murmurings about Jewish influence in American democracy at levels not heard in generations, can the rest of us have nothing to say?

Surprisingly, perhaps, these are two sides of the same question. And the answer begins in the same place that answers to Jewish ethical questions always begin: at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Right after giving the tablets of the law, while the mountain was still smoking and the people  still trembling, we are told, “The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: You yourselves have seen that I spoke to you from the very heavens. With me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (Exodus 20:19-20)

What could this mean, when just moments earlier we were commanded to shun graven images? What does this add? Rav Ashi, the great redactor of the Babylonian Talmud, explained it in an enigmatic passage (Sanhedrin 7b) that was later clarified by Rashi: It refers to “a judge who is appointed through the influence of money.”

This is no random dictate. Rav Ashi’s comment comes in the context of a lengthy discussion about the appointment and behavior of judges and other public officials and the importance and appearance of fairness — including the possible corrupting influence of money.

For Rav Ashi to place this discussion at the foot of Sinai is telling. The master assembler of the book of laws is saying, in effect, that this is the eleventh commandment: that the law is pointless unless it is both administered and perceived to be administered fairly, and that money corrupts, in both practice and perception.

Nor is this an isolated concept in the broad sweep of Torah law and ethics. Good governance, equality before the law, and ethical conduct by public officials are central concerns in the mind of Torah (far more central, we might note, than the personal and sexual preoccupations that loom so large in contemporary religious discourse). “Do not judge unfairly; do not favor the poor or the rich,” the Torah warns (Leviticus 19:15). And: “Do not subvert the just suit of the poor.” (Exodus 23:6) Further: “Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and subvert the case of the righteous.” (Exodus 23:8, and again in Deuteronomy 16:19) And: “One law shall you have for the citizen and the alien.” (Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15 and yet again in Numbers 15:29)

This is the same ethical principle that lies at the heart of America’s long-running debate over money and democracy. In the republic’s first years, political participation was limited to men of property. During the early 19th century, the franchise was extended to remove the barrier of wealth, followed by race after the Civil War and gender after World War I.

In the immediate post-Civil War years, however, the wealthy regrouped. The emerging titans of corporate America coalesced during the Gilded Age in the modern Republican Party and, under political strategist Mark Hanna, perfected the modern arts of political fundraising and campaigning by mass marketing. And, in 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court took the quaint fiction of corporation-as-person, originally meant to let companies be sued in court, and married it to the Fourteenth Amendment in its Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company decision, absurdly giving corporations the rights of citizens.

The excesses of the Gilded Age led to the reformist backlash of the Progressive Era. Along with anti-trust and child labor laws, the 1907 Tillman Act barred corporate funding in national campaigns. Further legislation in the 1920s and 1930s set limits on individual campaign donations and on total campaign spending.

During the 1960s, the rise of television campaigning spurred a huge escalation in campaign spending. Congress responded in the early 1970s with new disclosure and enforcement rules. In 1976, however, the Supreme Court stepped in again, ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that most spending restrictions violated freedom of speech since, in the famous words of Justice Potter Stewart, “money is speech.” The Roberts Court’s much-discussed 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission only reaffirmed and extended the logic of Buckley.

Buckley had two little-noticed effects beyond its direct impact on campaign spending. First, in raising the political money race to a new level, it increased the Democrats’ dependence on a singular demographic group that, unlike the rest of the population, does not show a strong correlation between rising affluence and increased conservatism — namely, Jews. There are many reasons for the increasing prominence of Jews in the political system in the post-Watergate era, but Buckley is surely a major factor.

This, in turn, helped fuel the furious competition between the parties for the Jewish vote, which is really a competition for the Jewish donor. One of the more dangerous side effects is the transformation of Israel from a consensus issue into a political football. Nothing epitomizes that transformation more than the Adelson phenomenon. It’s bad for Israel and bad for America, but it’s terrible for the Jews.

Secondly, Buckley helped to usher in the new Gilded Age. It, more than any other factor, diverted the attention of Democrats and liberals from the interests of the working and middle classes to issues of cultural and identity politics that appeal to wealthy liberals. At the same time, it cemented a bipartisan consensus around economic policies that serve the wealthy: deregulation, de-unionization and the lowering of top marginal tax rates. The result is the 30-year spike in economic inequality, the stagnation of middle-class incomes and the explosive rise in incomes at the very top. America has become the very thing that the Torah warned against.

The justices believed in 1976 that their ruling wouldn’t upset the principle of equality before the law, since both parties were equally free to raise pots of money. Their logic recalls the observation of the French novelist Anatole France: The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under a bridge.

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J.J. Goldberg is a senior columnist at The Forward. One of the leading voices in contemporary Jewish journalism, Goldberg is the author most recently of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.

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