Why can’t we limit money in politics like the French?

My family and I are nearing the end of a sabbatical year in France. One of the highlights of this adventure was watching the French presidential election in April in which Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen by a margin of 17 points. As an American, it was refreshing to see how a democracy holds a presidential election without spending billions of dollars.

By law, leading presidential candidates in France cannot spend more than 22.5 million euros (about $25 million) on their campaigns. In the United States, we have no such limits.

Joe Biden spent $1.6 billion to win the 2020 presidential election. That’s 70 times more than Macron spent on his candidacy, but America’s population is only five times larger than that of France. There is no end in sight to the amount of money in American politics. Biden spent three times as much as Hillary Clinton in 2016. One could argue that the high stakes of the 2020 election justified big spending, but that argument also applies to France in 2022, as one in two wars rage. NATO borders to the east. The only reason France spends orders of magnitude less than the United States on its elections is because the French have limits.

Not only does French law limit the total amount a presidential candidate can raise and spend, but the government reimburses almost half (47.5%) of campaign expenses. This means that only half of election funding comes from private donors. The cap on the amount an individual can donate is higher in France (4,600 euros), but in the United States, wealthy individual donors can easily circumvent our $2,900 cap by making unlimited contributions to action committees. politics and the parties that support their candidate.

In the United States, it is perfectly legal for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums to support a candidate. In France, company and union dues are illegal. The United States, like France, has disclosure requirements so the public can see who is funding campaigns, but there is a gaping loophole in US law because of our tolerance for corporate donations. Ultra-wealthy donors quickly learned to hide their contributions behind the veil of politically motivated nonprofit corporations known as 501(c)(4)s, which don’t have to disclose their donors – something is called black money. We just don’t know who funds many political campaigns and causes in the United States.

Over the past 40 years, as France and other Western European democracies have adopted tougher campaign spending limits, the United States Supreme Court has pushed America in the opposite direction by dramatically limiting the ability of legislators to set such limits. The court’s rationale is that money is talk and that money limits in our democracy, for any reason other than preventing the crime of bribery, violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

The court’s decades-long perversion of the First Amendment’s free speech clause gives the wealthiest Americans a constitutionally sanctioned advantage in our political system. As a result, America is now a plutocracy – a government run by the wealthy. Most of our election money comes from less than half of 1% of the population, the majority of whom reside in a dozen wealthy ZIP codes. A plutocracy is not a government by We the People.

Three-quarters of Americans, including 88% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans, support an amendment to take big money out of our politics.

Let’s use this consensus to pass the For Our Freedom Amendment. My experience observing French politics this year has convinced me that the Supreme Court is wrong. Money is not the same as speech. Money destabilizes our political system by giving an advantage to candidates and ideas backed by big money. France is proof that a democracy can have both a free exchange of ideas and a level playing field.

Julie Brogan is a volunteer attorney for American Promise. ©2022 Le Point d’Appui. Distributed by content agency Tribune.


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