A Family History and a Nation’s Future Part 2: What 1896 Teaches Us About Democracy, Science, and Fair Elections

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | January 14, 2014, 4:51 pm EDT
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A few years ago, my grandmother gave me a gift. It was a hand-me-down, but a unique one. She gave me an original absentee ballot from the 1896 presidential election. I was excited not only that the 100-year-old document was still intact but also that it was from the 1896 election in particular—an important election in the history of our republic, but not just because of who won the presidency.

This month marks the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that I’ll discuss later in this post. And last week, I wrote about our need to fix our political system so that our nation can advance more evidence-based and democratic decision making. I used some of my family history to talk about our nation’s history of valuing science and the democratic process and introduced recent hurdles put in place by the astronomical levels of money in politics we have today.

William McKinley, campaign finance, and protecting our democracy

An 1896 political cartoon featuring McKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna and his"campaign funding" from industry. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An 1896 political cartoon featuring McKinley’s campaign manager Mark Hanna and his “campaign funding” from industry. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong, money in politics is nothing new and the 1896 presidential election showed this. The main contenders were William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. In an unprecedented move, McKinley used “financiers and industrialists” to fund his campaign, ultimately outspending and defeating his opponent.

But our decision makers at the turn-of-the-century foresaw the dangers of direct funding of campaigns by corporations. They saw the threat it posed to our democracy. And they responded. Following the corporate-funded 1896 election, many states passed campaign finance laws and in 1907, the U.S. Congress passed the Tillman Act, banning the direct financing of elections by businesses to political parties and election committees. Though imperfect, the law was the first attempt at federal control over campaign finance and several laws were subsequently passed to strengthen the rules.

In short, our leaders responded to the problem of corporate money influencing elections by creating a set of checks and balances that helped preserve a government ruled by the people. Their efforts limited the influence of money on our elections for some time, but recent threats have emerged.

Citizens United: Partying like it’s 1896

In 2010 the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending on political activities. Since then, there has been a drastic increase in political spending by companies, largely through “dark money” groups such as trade associations and “social welfare” organizations. This indirect funding allows companies to stay anonymous while groups do their political bidding, essentially giving them “a free pass” to use their trade groups to influence policy, as trade associations and other politically active organizations are not required to disclose their donors to the public. Corporations can thereby influence political debates without accountability.

An original (though in poor shape) absentee ballot for the 1896 presidential election that my family has kept.

An original (though in poor shape) absentee ballot for the 1896 presidential election that my family has kept. The election was the first time that a U.S. Presidential campaign (William McKinley’s) had been largely financed by corporations.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United relied on the assumption of “prompt disclosure of expenditures,” which would allow shareholders to hold companies accountable (Editorial Board 2013). In the absence of an SEC rule, however, such disclosure is virtually nonexistent, given that companies can legally remain nameless donors to trade groups and other outside organizations that are politically active.

This secrecy is problematic, especially when it comes to public policy issues where companies’ positions may not align with the public interest. Many science-based issues fall in this category. In issues like climate change, FDA drug approvals, and chemical safety, we’ve found that corporate interests can pour tremendous funds into the political system and defeat measures that would protect our health and safety. And unfortunately, they often win.

Solving money in politics today

In his book The Price of Civilization, the Columbia University economist and advocate Jeffrey Sachs criticized the role of corporations in government lobbying. When discussing the possible solutions he wrote, “America’s problems may seem insoluble today, but that’s mainly because the United States has gotten out of the practice of true social reform and problem solving.”

As a nation we’ve solved many seemingly impassable issues in the past, broadly speaking and with money in politics in particular. The McKinley election represented a fundamental shift in campaign finance, yet decision makers responded with new protections for fair elections. Even though threats to our democracy constantly emerge, we can fix this. We can adapt to the changing political landscape and continue to persevere in order to ensure that our democracy is protected. Our history as a nation tells me that this is within our reach.


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  • CarolynH

    Eventually, things will get desperate enough that people will engage because they have no other choice. Sometimes, unfortunately, this engagement will be violent. We’re also fighting against the American exceptionalism myth: if we’re the greatest country in the world in regards to everything, then it’s difficult for us to rally the troops to fix problems we won’t accept exist.

    We need to get people more acquainted with history and to see the problems of today aren’t that much different than the problems of last century or the century before. It’s a struggle of those who have power against those who don’t.

  • Richard Solomon

    I have read Lawrence Lessig’s book and agree with much of it. I am, however, much less optimistic than you seem to be about our ability to fix the system.

    At this point, the moneyed and corporate interests in the USA hold so much sway over Congress that I cannot see how legislation to reform campaign finance will ever pass. A MUCH larger and more powerful groundswell of sentiment about this has to develop than is the case right now. Even if/when such a law might pass, you can bet your bottom dollar (pardon the pun!) that the case will be brought to the Supreme Court asap. With its current configuration, SCOTUS will not allow such a law to continue.

    • Richard,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments on parts 1 and 2 of this blog post. I agree with you that problem certainly seems insurmountable. As I tried to portray in part 1, I think there were a lot of times in U.S. history where problems seemed impossibly challenging, and yet we’ve solved them. So that gives me my general optimism on this. In terms of the issue at hand, I think there a few ways that we get around the legislative bodies that are likely to oppose reform. On the executive side, there are a few opportunities through federal agencies (that I’ll discuss in future posts). And there are also ways we can start to get at the issue at different levels. Have you been following the implementation of state-level models of clean elections and matched funding? It is early to tell, but I think those look promising as well. I’d be curious if you think there are other avenues with potential solutions on this. And anyhow, I’m glad you still have hope!