Plutocracy through Language

According to Edward Sapir, each language is a different social reality. The article Auctioning American Democracy, author Aaron Ansell argues that the social reality constructed by the English language facilitated the Supreme Court decision in the McCutcheon et al v Federal Election Commission case. The case declared the aggregate campaign contribution limit to be unconstitutional according to the First Amendment. Individuals were allowed to contribute a maximum of $1,776 to an individual campaign, and an aggregate of $33,088 among all campaigns. Now the aggregate limit is no longer applicable. The plurality opinion claims that money is a means of expression of opinions and the concurring opinion asserts that a larger donation can be seen as an indication of the “volume” of the speaker’s voice.

The English language supports this ruling because of the connotations that money is a form of communication. The common expression “money talks” further supports the idea that money as a communicative medium is an implication understood by the majority of English language speakers. Money is understood to impart a message unto its recipient, in this case the giver’s political views.  The flaw in this ruling is that the meaning shared by the donation to a campaign is taken out of context from other communication acts. The ruling assumes that a gift is given solely as an acknowledgement of support of a candidate’s views with no expectation in return. As long as the contribution is not directly given in exchange for some other favor, there can be no suspicion of corruption.

Such an interpretation overlooks the connotations and denotations of a gift. A gift is ostensibly given as a selfless act, but there is a latent expectation that the debt will be repaid in some manner. Doubtless, there will be conversations between major donors and candidates about the issues the donor finds important and desires to influence. Although there may never be direct communication about a specific course of action, there will be an implied obligation to please donors by prioritizing their pet projects.

The new Supreme Court ruling is frightening because it essentially gives wealthy individuals more of a say in our democratic process than people without means. By providing the rich to boundlessly influence legislators with money, power is concentrated into their hands. Money is seen as a form of expression, even more so than words or actions in this case. The implications of this decision may increase the power of plutocracy rather than a democracy in the United States.