Donors and Loners -- Separate But Equal All Over Again

It's hard to believe we used to openly segregate people by race. Separate schools, railroad cars and drinking fountains for blacks and whites were justified for decades because the Supreme Court condoned a "separate but equal" argument pushed by those who wanted legalized discrimination.

Today we segregate people by wealth. There are "donors" who enjoy outsized political influence and extremely comfortable lives dripping with opulence, and there's the rest of us -- loners in a sense -- because we are shut out of the process. We can't afford to write the check for the ticket to democracy.

158 families and their affiliated businesses have contributed $176 million to the 2016 presidential race according to an investigation done by the New York Times. Is there any doubt these donors have more access and representation?

Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United case, donating obscene amounts of money to influence elections is their legal right under the First Amendment. Money is speech and corporations are people, the justices say, and freedom of expression means there is no limit on what can be spent on the candidates and issues of their choice.

In the old days of racial segregation there were plenty of good white people aware of the injustice who helped forge the civil rights movement. White people weren't the problem, per se, it was the legal and political system that subjugated the rights of blacks and perpetuated inequality that the Supreme Court ultimately declared to be unconstitutional and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

So too is it a systemic problem today. Most donors are good hardworking people who give money and time generously to help communities around the globe. I don't begrudge the fortune or success of these pillars of society, what I worry about and deplore is the rot setting in the pillars of our public institutions for lack of public input and participation.

Public funding for schools, services, parks, media and the arts has dried up because of tax cuts and loopholes mixed in with shameful greed of investors. Now institutions rely by necessity on private fundraising and sell off chunks of the American people's collective identity causing communities to crumble or be monetized. Every stadium is named for a corporation and every event has sponsors who get more tax breaks and invitations to more exclusive parties where plans are hatched for more projects that degrade civic life.

A handful of very rich people and their corporations are running the country from corner offices and board rooms, places with lots of glass but very little transparency. Everyone may have one vote in the United States but surely there is not equal protection under the law.

Income inequality is a natural consequence of a market-based society, but the issue today isn't about lifestyle, it's about power and influence. Donors can have their cordoned off box at the symphony, shrimp cocktail, fine wine and signed photograph with the candidate. What the people want and deserve is representation in Washington and Augusta.

Of course capitalism creates social classes, and with it a vibrant economy that shuts some people out of a world of luxury, but social exclusion is a price most are willing to pay for the opportunity to achieve social mobility.

A system that unfairly weights the so-called First Amendment rights of wealthy donors and corporations on the scales of justice far too heavily against the equal protection rights of the rest of us is against everything we stand for as a people. It's separate but equal all over again, and it must be changed. The system needs a correction.

The overwhelming majority of people in Maine and across the country can't afford to influence the political system. They don't have equal access to elected officials and candidates, and therefore the agenda of the U.S. Congress is set by donors perpetuating a system that doubles down to benefit those who can afford to participate against the interests of the rest of us.

Donors deserve to set the gold standard for what constitutes a splendid and lavish lifestyle, but their material success doesn't justify the legal discrimination against the rest of us who vote but can't write a big check. This kind of segregation is legal, but it's not right. The chance to participate in the democratic process should belong to everyone, not just the ones who can afford to pay today's poll tax.