When it comes to democracy, sometimes Americans believe they not only invented the idea, they perfected it.
But two respected annual report cards out this week — one looking at democracy and the other at its anathema, governmental corruption — offer some sobering context for those who might instinctively believe that the United States is going to be naturally at the top of the heap.
The latest corruption study, by the venerable global watchdog group Transparency International, finds trust in the United States' political system at an all-time low and that government corruption has become a major concern for most Americans. The newest report on the state of global democracy by the Economist finds the United States dropping steadily in the last decade when compared with other countries.
American corruption on the rise
Since 1995, Transparency International has published its Corruption Perceptions Index, which analyzes corruption around the world. Countries are ranked from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Overall, two-thirds of the countries scored 50 or lower, with the average being 43.
For the second year in a row, it found corruption in the United States on the rise. For 2019, the country received a score of 69, a two-point drop from the year before and its worst score in a decade. Because France got the same score, both were ranked No. 23 out of the 180 countries included in the index.
The United States faces many challenges, the group notes, including threats to its system of checks and balances, the growing influence of special interests and the use of anonymous shell companies to hide illicit activities.
"While President Trump campaigned on a promise of 'draining the swamp' and making government work for more than just Washington insiders and political elites, a series of scandals, resignations and allegations of unethical behaviour suggest that the 'pay-to-play' culture has only become more entrenched," the group reported.
No country received a perfect score, although Denmark and New Zealand came closest with an 87. Other highly ranked countries include Finland, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland.
At the very bottom is Somalia, with a score of 9. Venezuela, Yemen, Syria and South Sudan were also among the most corrupt.
American democracy on the decline
Meanwhile the United States has only the 25th best democracy in the world, far from the "We're No. 1!" shouting of the typically prideful American view, according to the 14th annual Democracy Index published this week by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an arm of the British-based company that publishes the Economist magazine.
That ranking places the United States among the countries considered to be "flawed democracies" in 2019.
The good news is that the country's score of 7.96 (on a scale of 10) is the same as in 2018. But its score and ranking fell steadily during the past decade. In 2010 it was No. 17.
Still, North America retains the highest average score (8.59) of any region in the Democracy Index. That was thanks to Canada, with a score of 9.22 that pulled the region to the top.
The United States received a 9.17 for electoral process and pluralism but was dragged down by a 7.14 for functioning of government.
Americans' support for democracy remains strong, the report acknowledges, but adds that "popular dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in practice, both in terms of government dysfunction and a lack of political representation by the two main parties, has grown in recent years."
And where do the British authors rank their own country? No. 14, in the top tier of countries considered "full democracies." This from a country that still has a monarch as head of state and a Parliament paralyzed for much of the year over how to extract the country from the European Union
Overall, democracy is on the decline among the 165 independent states and two territories covered in the report. In fact, the average global score for democracy of 5.44 is the lowest since the index was first produced in 2006.
The top scorer was Norway. The rest of the top tier looked like a podium at the Winter Olympics: Sweden was No. 3, Finland No. 5 and Denmark and Canada tied for 7th. At the bottom was North Korea with a 1.08 — the latest reminder that President Trump sending a birthday card to Kim Jong-un was pretty unusual. (Russia, by the way, tied for 134th — which is 19 places ahead of China.)
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Ten years ago exactly — on Jan. 21, 2010 — the Supreme Court gave the green light to unlimited political expenditures by corporations, labor unions and nonprofit groups. The decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which said curbs on such spending violated the First Amendment, fundamentally changed the way elections are financed today.
A decade later the majority opinion in Citizens United is labeled, more often than any other single thing, as the ultimate antagonist of the democracy reform movement. The ruling has become so infamous it's used as shorthand for a campaign financing system that gives lopsided political advantage to the wealthiest over everyday citizens, including for reasons that have nothing to do with that case. That said, however, the decision has permitted groups that are not affiliated with any candidate or political party to pour almost $4.5 billion into the subsequent campaigns for president and Congress — an astonishing six times the total for all such independent expenditures in the two previous decades.
The 10-year anniversary has campaign finance experts all along the ideological spectrum reflecting on what the decision has meant for American politics, and what changes to laws and regulations might withstand court challenges and limit the impact of Citizens United in the decade ahead — on the assumption the ruling is on the books for at least that much longer.
Businesses didn't spend much more overtly, while a new actor stepped in
The conventional wisdom after the ruling was that the biggest corporations would suddenly play an overt and outsized role in elections because barriers to their spending had been dropped. But their direct contributions have remained relatively small.
Over the last four elections, corporations have accounted for just 6 percent of all contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest spending year for businesses was 2016, but their $111 million total was still dwarfed by the $1.7 billion given by individuals, unions and nonprofits.
Instead, a new kind of political action committee became the spending behemoth. Known as super PACs, they are created independent from any candidates for office, and so they are permitted to receive as much as they want in the new generation of uncapped donations. And the way they in turn spend that money gives them huge influence over election outcomes.
"The emergence of super PACs," says Scott Blackburn of The Institute for Free Speech, a conservative organization that applauds the court's ruling as a victory for free speech, "has been the largest and most significant innovation of the Citizens United decision."
Companies found another way to have influence in 'dark money'
While corporations may not be spending much in the traditional sense, they have found a new, more mysterious, way to influence elections.
The ruling permitted not-for-profit groups with political agendas to accept unlimited donations from companies (and rich people) and spend the money on advertising that expressly supports or opposes a candidate. Because these nonprofits don't have to disclose the identities of their benefactors, this kind of political donation has been dubbed "dark money."
Since Citizens United, almost $1 billion has been spent by groups not subject to donor disclosure, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And both parties have capitalized on the new era of dark money.
"While Republicans were quicker to embrace dark money groups than Democrats, political operatives in both parties are increasingly using opaque vehicles to funnel secret money into elections," said Michael Beckel, the research director of Issue One, which advocates for much more campaign finance transparency. (The Fulcrum is being incubated by — but is journalistically independent from — Issue One.)
Nonprofit organizations with political agendas (known as 501(c)(4)s because of where they're described in the tax code), law firms and other limited liability corporations, and other entities are often used as "pass-throughs for the purpose of concealing the true sources of spending," said Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, which promotes tighter money-in-politics regulation. "We have this phenomenon now of corporate nonprofits and other intermediaries being used to funnel money from one source ultimately to spending on an election."
Citizens United did stand behind disclosing who's doing all the new political 'speech'
In a part of the Citizens United majority opinion that gets much less attention than the 5-4 ruling about the constitutionality of unlimited spending, eight justices agreed that requiring transparency about who is doing all the new spending to influence elections would be appropriate.
"Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in that section of opinion. (Clarence Thomas was the one justice who did not go along with that section.)
If there was a silver lining to the Citizens United case, this would be it, Beckel said. Chlopak and Ian Vandewalker, a campaign finance expert at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, also pointed to this as one positive outcome of the case.
More federal laws to boost transparency look to survive Supreme Court scrutiny
What makes the court's statements about the merits of disclosure even more encouraging is that it puts Congress and state legislatures "on firm ground" to enact stronger election transparency requirements, Chlopak said.
One place to start, Beckel said, would be enacting legislation that's been pending without any votes on Capitol Hill for several years. The Political Accountability and Transparency Act, which has both GOP and Democratic backing, would require donor disclosure for political advertisements and strengthen rules against coordination to make sure that super PACs actually operate independently from candidates.
Another measure in Congress, which also has some bipartisan support but has seen no action, is the Disclose Act. It would increase reporting requirements for corporations, labor organizations, super PACs and other political entities.
And there are many provisions to tighten transparency regulations (including a version of the Disclose Act) in HR 1, the sweeping political process bill passed by the Democratic House last year but consigned to oblivion in the Republican Senate.
The Brennan Center's Vandewalker noted public financing of elections on the local, state or federal level is also a good solution to wealthy special interests' stranglehold on politics. Using public funds to match small donations gives "regular people the chance to compete with those big donors at the top" and "candidates who don't necessarily have wealthy connections the ability to run competitive campaigns without chasing big donors," he said.
There may be a silver lining in the decision even for its fiercest critics
"I can't think of a single positive thing that came out of that ruling," said Patrick Burwinkle, spokesman for the campaign finance group that signals its objective in its name: End Citizens United.
But, he conceded, the court case did help bring attention to the democracy reform movement. "After a decade of Citizens United, people are fed up with the way the system works and people want to fight back and people want to fix it," he said.
Before 2010, only a handful of organizations were working toward campaign finance reform. But Citizens United "shocked many people into realizing just how broken the political system has become," said Issue One's Beckel. "Today, Democrats, Republicans and independents overwhelmingly want more transparency in elections and a government that is more responsive to all Americans, not just wealthy special interests."
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It's no surprise that Democrats in Congress rank better on democracy reform than their Republican counterparts, especially when progressive groups are keeping score. Over the last year, GOP members were largely opposed to Democratic efforts to get big money out of politics and expand access to the ballot box.
So the bipartisan chasm comes off as enormous in the first congressional scorecard produced by End Citizens United, a liberal political action committee that's focused mainly on shrinking money's influence over politics. And the report, released this week, suggests only rare and subtle degrees of disapproval for the blue team on Capitol Hill in 2019 — and only a few areas for faint praise of the red team.
All members were rated on whether they accepted contributions from corporate PACs. The 432 current House members were also scored on how they voted on the floor four times — including of course on HR 1, the comprehensive political process overhaul passed in March — and how many of five measures important to the group they cosponsored. Since the Senate took no votes on legislation connected to democracy reform, the senators in office last year were rated only on a quartet of co-sponsorships.
To see how each member scored, read the complete report. But here are six of the big takeaways:
The presidential candidates scored well.
All five members still in the running for the Democratic nomination received perfect marks: Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (So, too, did the three senators who have dropped out.)
Such perfect scores were rare.
Eleven Senators and 37 House members, all of them Democrats, checked all the boxes to earn an A+. This group included 22 House members in their first terms.
Because not many Democrats reject business cash.
Only a quarter of the Democratic senators (11 of them) and one-fifth of the party's House members (47) are doing one of the things End Citizens United thinks most important in an area when corporate money is flowing so freely into campaigns.
Almost all the Republicans got failing grades.
In fact, all 53 of the party's senators got a zero. So did 192 of the GOP members of the House last year. The remaining five each did one thing that got them credit with the group:
Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania voted for an overhaul of the Voting Rights Act. Brian Mast of Florida voted for for an election security package. Francis Rooney of Florida and Phil Roe of Tennessee are rejecting corporate PAC money. (Both are retiring, though.) And John Katko of New York is cosponsoring an amendment to the Constitution to allow more limits on campaign fundraising and spending.
The newest Republican is an outlier.
Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey scored 85 percent for agreeing with the groups' position in seven of the 10 areas. But he's only been a GOP member since the start of the year. Last year he was a Democrat.
Just four Democrats did not get an A.
Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only two Democratic senators in this category; she scored 82 percent and he got 71 percent. In the House, the lowest Democtaic scores were for Frederica Wilson of Florida (83 percent) and Collin Peterson of Minnesota (77 percent).
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Mike Monetta joined Wolf-PAC as one of its first volunteers in 2011 and now serves as its national director. The nonpartisan political action committee's goal is to amend the Constitution to allow for more legislation regulating the flow of big money into campaigns, which the Supreme Court ruled is now broadly protected by the First Amendment. Wolf-PAC advocated for what's known as an "Article V Convention," in which two-thirds of the states demand a constitutional convention. (The more common route for a constitutional amendment is for Congress to first pass an amendment and then seek ratification from the states.) Originally from New Hampshire, Monetta led efforts to get Vermont to become the first state calling for such a convention. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's the tweet-length description of your organization?
We are Americans, from all walks of life, using the power of our Constitution to fix corruption and restore a government of, by and for the people.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
I called my state representative in New Hampshire to talk about the Wolf-PAC Free & Fair Elections resolution. I was a new volunteer and had never spoken with an elected official on the phone before. In fact, I didn't even realize that was something people did! I was intimidated to make the call, but it ended up being a friendly and productive conversation. I realized that our representatives need to hear from us on issues, not only to let them know what we care about, but also to inform them on things they may not have a full understanding of.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
In 2014, I helped to make Vermont the first state in American history to call for an Article V Convention on the topic of campaign finance reform. I was proud to work with so many legislators in that statehouse, from all across the political spectrum, who understand the urgency of this issue and were willing to take action to fix it.
And your most disappointing setback?
Not making enough progress in the last couple of years has been difficult for myself and many others who put so much into this effort.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I identify as an average American citizen being oppressed by a system that wants to extract everything from us for profit, at the expense of our future. This motivates me to change the system sooner than later.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Lead by example. Don't ask anyone to do anything you haven't done yourself.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Maple Wall St. — it's so good it should be a crime.
The West Wing or Veep?
Veep. It's hilarious, but I've also never seen The West Wing, so there's that.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Make sure all rings and notifications are turned OFF!
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
My brother and I occasionally skipped Catechism on Saturday mornings after our parents had dropped us off. If there is a God, we may have some issues.
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