Teddy Roosevelt v. Citizens United

October 16, 2014

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How is it possible that, given overwhelming public concern about the direction of the country, we could be facing historically low turnout in the midterm elections on Nov. 4?

The question isn’t new. As trust in government has swung up and down in the past half century, turnout for midterm races, as in presidential years, has varied relatively little, each staying within a 10-point range. Studies of nonvoters have found many reasons, but one of the big ones is that people know a single vote rarely if ever determines the outcome of an election.

By this reasoning, of course, why would anyone ever vote?

A portrait of U.S. President William McKinleyFor those with no family member to vote for, the best answer is usually “civic virtue,” which just means caring about the country, its direction and its future. That old answer to an old problem takes on new urgency in elections when the country faces some form of peril.

One of those moments came in 1896, after the panic of 1893, a time when the Gilded Age’s concentration of great wealth among the very few made a sharp contrast with the deep economic depression that most of the country was suffering through.

The elections of 1896 and 1900 were the last in American history when turnout exceeded 70 percent. Both pitted the populist William Jennings Bryan, defender of the common man, against William McKinley, supporter of the gold standard and, in Bryan’s view, a tool of “the money trust.”

The specter of a Bryan presidency was so palpable and frightening to the corporate and financial worlds that the McKinley campaign was able to pioneer a crude early form of modern political fundraising: His campaign manager simply visited heads of large banks and corporations, asked them how much they would spend to beat Bryan, and took their checks to the bank.

McKinley was able to raise $3.5 million that way in 1896. Calculations of the current value of old money are notoriously squishy, but the equivalent in economic power today would be well north of $1 billion and, in any case, far more money per ballot than was ever spent before or since.

Money talked so loudly in McKinley’s lopsided victories that in the end it seems to have worked too well. After McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, criticism of his fundraising made campaign finance reform a signature issue for his running mate and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who started talking about it not long after becoming president. Though TR accepted corporate contributions for his campaign of 1904, he ignored the donors’ requests for payback (Henry Clay Frick groused, “We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn’t stay bought”) and pushed through the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited banks and corporations from contributing to political campaigns.

A century of campaign-finance reform followed, the constant drift of it being to regulate, contain and disclose the flow of Big Money into U.S. politics. Some of that reform was halfhearted because the people who voted for it needed the money they were supposed to be cutting off. But it reflected the public’s strong conviction that letting corporations and the wealthy use their financial power to exert a greater say in elections than ordinary citizens was just plain bad for democracy.

That view hit a big snag with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United four years ago and in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission last spring, which opened the floodgates to Big Money contributions and allowed even mega-donors to remain anonymous, preventing the public from knowing where a lot of that money was coming from, and why.

Once in a while, though, you get to see where some of the “dark money” comes from and what its purpose is, and when that happens, as it did last week, it’s clear why nondisclosure is such a bad idea.

Given the partisan divide on this Supreme Court, it’s probably going to take new laws and new lawmakers to change things, and that’s what my vote is going to be about on Nov. 4. But take your pick: Abortion, contraception, fracking, climate change, Ebola, Islamic State, failing schools, crumbling roads and bridges—there’s something for everybody in the midterm  elections.

So this column is dedicated to my 60 million fellow Americans who could have registered by now but haven’t — and to the 60 million registered voters who sat out the last midterm elections. Early voting may already have started, but it’s not too late to register, and there is help if you need it (here, here, here and lots of other places).

Our votes may not decide the election, but they say a lot about who we are. And to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s great joke about a room full of manure and a pony, there just might be a Teddy Roosevelt in there somewhere.

I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com

TOP PHOTO: Images of President Theodore Roosevelt are seen in the background as artist Sarah Kaufmann sculpts cheese ahead of President’s Day at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Times Square, New York on February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Zoran Milich 

INSET PHOTO: A portrait of U.S. President William McKinley, who served from 1897-1901. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout

16 comments

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Americans will never do anything until they suffer greater pains. They are weak and complacent and trained to be permanently infantile. They do not want freedom but rather they want a strong daddy to take care of them. It is better to whine about the terrible government than to have to live with the results of their own decisions. The banks have shown us that the american people will accept any corruption in order to be taken care of like babies.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Good history lesson! And obviously lessons forgotten over time.

As we hear from political operatives on both sides of the aisle about the digressions of their opponents, it’s important to remember that “We the People” can make a change. But “We” fail to follow through with that right by getting out to vote.

With the advent of internet based social media platforms, it is my greatest hope that the masses will eventually come together to make changes that will benefit them, instead of huge business or political machines.

Instead of using social media solely for narcissistic purposes I hope that we can evolve into a society that promotes the greater good rather than relaying the boring minutiae of our daily lives

Posted by bobtrucks | Report as abusive

imagine a world where you can only choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, there are no other drinks available……..

Proctor and Gamble will ask you to choose between Tide or Gain laundry detergent, which are essentially the same ingredients in different boxes. choose one or the other they have still sold you laundry detergent.

our elections seem to be contests between salesman, representing the same product…..where are the statesmen to vote for?

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

What drives voter complacency? The mindset of “wasted” votes or the opinion that there is truly no democratic representation for the voters?

Special interests have dictated US politics since the beginning. Unfortunately, the voice of a few has squashed the will of the majority in most cases. The continued legislation from the judicial branch and the lack of direction at the executive and legislative branches will do nothing but continue this slide.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Yes, your vote counts in determining who wins the election. But which candidate wins the election doesn’t matter. We’ll get the same policies. Both parties support the bone-headed misapplication of free trade policy, regardless of whether or not it’s assured to drain the economy of jobs. Both parties then lean heavily on deficit spending to keep the economy afloat. Both parties support high rates of immigration to keep downward pressure on wages.

Which party is in power when supreme court justices are replaced matters not, since both left and right-leaning justices are left to interpret a constitution that is badly outdated, but impossible to amend. Does anyone really believe that our founding fathers meant for “the people” to include global corporations or that “free speech” and money are equivalent, to be sold to the highest bidder?

America has become an oligarchy, a place where the economy is rigged in favor of the ruling elite – a place where royal families hold more sway over our lives than they did in the places fled by our forefathers. It matters not if we swerve left or right on the road to nowhere. We end up in the same place.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

A Republican Progressive is an oximoron.

Posted by Canela | Report as abusive

The reason to ask people to vote simply because they have the right or duty to do so is insane.
It would be far, far worse to get uninformed voters participating than if they would sit the vote out. IF you are to vote, then it is equally your duty to vote well. It is a responsible, informed voter that would help the nation…not one simply voting as a bus load of robots filling our ballots as requested by union, local ministers or newspapers.

Our nation is in the shape we are today because WE voted these leaders in. What we have today is the result of voters voting their pocketbooks and NOT what leaders are Teddy Roosevelt.

Posted by ppellico | Report as abusive

“McKinley was able to raise $3.5 million that way in 1896. Calculations of the current value of old money are notoriously squishy, but the equivalent in economic power today would be well north of $1 billion and, in any case, far more money per ballot than was ever spent before or since.”
$1 billion? Well , calculating the current value of old money can indeed be squishy, but 3.5 million in 1896 dollars would probably be closer to upwards of $125 million rather than “north of $1 billion” today, even allowing for the long economic depression that ran from 1876 to 1896.
It’s far simpler to talk about the buying power of the dollar in simple comparative terms, such as the month’s pay of a US Army Captain then and now, or the price of 5 pounds of potatoes in St Louis or Atlanta or the cost of a pair of men’s shoes in Brooks Brothers then and now.

Posted by MossyMorse1118 | Report as abusive

I nominate retired General Honore. He is one straight talking individual with a common sense approach to so many of the problems facing our nation. He is a man who smokes his cigar in public and says the hell with political correctness. He is the sort of leader that one can trust to do the right thing instead of playing political games.

Posted by kabscorner | Report as abusive

at most, things will get a little bit worse

Posted by harrykrishna | Report as abusive

A growing number of Americans don’t really want freedom as that makes one solely esponsible for their actions, success or failure. They subconsciously know that they are more likely to fail than succeed in life and want to keep growing the Federal and State Government provided “safety nets”. Of course they expect “the rich” to fund it all. Since the rich hold a disproportionate amount of control over the legislative process, and the working classes can only pay for a portion of what they demand, the government borrows money to be paid at some nebulous future date that never comes. Hence,the Federal Reserve prints money like our prosperity ddepends on (because it does). It is all fun and games until the ccurrency collapses. A modern Teddy Roosevelt is unelectable in today’s America.

Posted by AZWarrior | Report as abusive

It had better be someone the racists in this country will accept!

Posted by Bernie777 | Report as abusive

The Republican and Democratic parties are opposite sides of the same coin. And that coin is rolling in the wrong direction. When a viable Independent emerges I will go down to the polls and cast my vote. Until then our fortunes swing back and forth among ridiculously narrow opportunities.

Posted by johojo37601 | Report as abusive

Sometimes there is no one to vote for. As a lifelong conservative, I considered the 2008 presidential election. McCain is simply a politician, like Kerry, he has no real values, he just likes power and follows the polls to figure out what to believe. I had my choice between McCain and Obama, which was a choice between a weathervane and an incompetent. Nowadays when 55%-45% is considered a landslide and a mandate, I hesitate to give anyone in the political landscape my approval. Amendments, initiatives, and referendums will be overturned by the overly politicized courts on spurious grounds anyway.

Conversely not voting can be seen as a positive vote for “none of the above”. The bumpersticker that will probably adorn my car is “DON’T VOTE, IT JUST ENCOURAGES THE BUMS”.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

Today, midterms seem to be the “angry push-back” elections. When the poulation feels it’s being snookered by those in power, they are going to throw every voting “wrench” into the machine to stop it.

Furthermore, voters from the last century did not have the constant information flow that today’s voter has. Life and information were “slower”, and voters could concentrate more on principles and ideas, as opposed to the newest gaffe-soundbite ping-pong matches that we have in our 24-hour-media political culture. One day, everyone LOVES Barack Obama, the next day, they hate him. One day, Sarah Palin knocks it “out of the park” with a speech, then she can’t tell a news reporter what the Bush Doctrine is… Today’s media has created the tepid voter; who can a voter support/trust without feeling “buyer’s remorse” later?

Posted by eddieroo | Report as abusive

I’ve often wondered what TR would think of today’s GOP. It’s gone so far right-wing extreme, he wouldn’t even recognize it. btw; the ‘trusts’, which are the mega banks and Big Corporations, got TR on the ballot for VP because of his popularity and because the VP position was supposedly a dead-end for him. Imagine their shock when he became President. The ‘trust buster’ went to work on the big money. He is also responsible for most of our national parks. Here in WA we even have a species of Elk named after him.

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive