Timothy Kuhner ’98: The Corruption of American Democracy

timothykuhner

Timothy Kuhner ’98, associate professor of law at Georgia State University, recently visited Bowdoin to talk about his new book, Capitalism v. Democracy, and the way money is corrupting American democracy.

As of the latest national elections, it costs approximately $1 billion to become president, $10 million to become a senator, and $1 million to become a member of the House. High-priced campaigns, an elite class of donors and spenders, superPACs and increasing corporate political power have become the new normal in American politics.

In his book, Kuhner argues that these conditions have turned American democracy into a system of rule that favors the wealthy and marginalizes ordinary citizens. The Supreme Court became the architect of American plutocracy, Kuhner maintains, by striking down campaign finance reforms that limited the role of money in politics.

In his recent talk at Bowdoin, Kuhner said that third parties account for much of the escalating costs of political campaigning. Congress passed campaign reform legislation in 2002 after nine percent of the Bush-Gore campaign was financed by third parties. However, both Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission overturned many campaign finance restrictions in 2010 and 2013 respectively, allowing corporations, nonprofits, labor unions and associations to contribute to campaigns without aggregate limits.

By 2012, nearly 30 percent of senate race advertisements, 20 percent of house advertisements, and 31 percent of ads in Obama-Romney campaign (51 percent of the Romney advertisements) were financed by third parties. This came to a collective $2.4 billion spent on campaign financing in 2012.

The question of who donates to campaigns raises questions about equality and freedom of speech. Private political expenditure creates political exclusion. Because a mere 0.4 percent of the population is providing roughly 80 percent of the money funneled into politics, campaign financing is the last lawful means of political exclusion (think poll taxes, literacy tests, and white-only primaries after African Americans gained the right to vote).

Kuhner proposes a separation of business and state. The United States has a history of rooting out “categorical evils” such as theocracy, monarchy and dictatorship, which are all based on “an architectural relationship of one sphere dominating others.” The good news about money in politics, Kuhner told Bowdoin students, is that the younger generation has the chance to influence this issue. Money in politics is not yet considered a top issue (like gun control, for example) so it hasn’t been a priority for legislators.

Kuhner teaches courses on international law, comparative law, human rights, campaign finance and alternative dispute resolution. He received his J.D. and LL.M., magna cum laude, from Duke University School of Law in 2004. He graduated magna cum laude from Bowdoin College, where he was awarded highest honors in sociology and the Romance Languages Prize.

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