Lincoln Steffens, Ida M. Tarbell and Jacob Riis are not well-known names today, but there was a time when they had household familiarity, along with Upton Sinclair and Ambrose Bierce. They were all Progressive Era muckrakers, reform-minded investigative journalists at the turn of the 20th century who exposed corruption in politics, industry and the financial world. Though Theodore Roosevelt criticized them for their preoccupation with dirt and for being short on solutions to the problems they examined, historians credit them with having helped shape reform policies that curtailed graft and boodle, and restored democratic aspects of American politics.
One of the major reform campaigns of that era aimed to stop corporate and fat cat money from corrupting the U.S. Senate. As originally written, the U.S. Constitution provided that U.S. senators should be elected by state legislatures. But by the last decades of the 19th century, state legislatures had become such easy prey that wealthy corporations and industrial magnates were purchasing senators, who happily did industry's bidding once elected. Money was even more corrupting at the state and local level.
The campaign to change the way senators are elected, to have them elected at large by the people, as they are now, began in earnest in the 1890s. The Populist Party, the major third party of that time, included direct election of senators as part of its 1892 party platform. In 1893 there were enough votes in the House to pass a constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification; it stalled in the Senate. The same thing happened in 1900, and again in 1904 and 1908. But, led by William Jennings Bryan, the reformers refused to give in. By 1910, 31 state legislatures had adopted resolutions supporting the amendment. Finally, in 1912 with a number of newly elected senators having pledged their support, the amendment passed both the House and Senate; it was ratified by the requisite number of states in 1913 and became part of the Constitution.
Today, mostly because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission equating money with free speech, money again impedes and quashes democracy. Ordinary citizens can't be heard because the politicians are beholden to their big funders, and the wealthy can flood television with sophisticated, often misleading ads that confuse the undecided and dull everyone's senses. We've just seen the impact of political money inundating Alaska. It is very likely that without the massive, oil-financed ad campaign against repeal of Senate Bill 21, the repeal referendum would have passed. In the Republican senatorial primary, outlier Dan Sullivan, using Outside money, greatly outspent and handily defeated better-known Mead Treadwell despite Treadwell's long tradition of working for and serving in Alaska. The Outside money will play large in the upcoming Senate race between Sullivan and incumbent Mark Begich.
But just as a hundred years ago, there is a potential solution: a proposed constitutional amendment to exclude corporate personhood and curtail unlimited election campaign spending. Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent from Vermont, is leading the effort to move the amendment through Congress. He's been joined now by 49 other senators. Numerous investigative journalists have explored the impact of unbridled spending. Here in Alaska, Sen. Begich co-sponsored a joint resolution, with Sanders, calling on Congress to pass the amendment. Candidate Sullivan has said he's skeptical of an amendment.
Today, 16 states have adopted resolutions calling for the amendment and so have 550 cities. In a recent poll, a new nonprofit group, Every Voice, found that 73 percent of Americans support the proposed amendment. Sixty-five percent said they find the current system of campaign financing unacceptable. Clearly, there is a groundswell in favor of reform, and a constitutional amendment seems within reach.
Democracy is a fragile form of government. It depends on citizen engagement; without it, our politics are handed off to wealth and power, and power, as the historian noted, has a tendency to corrupt. Without access, those without power, the great bulk of ordinary citizens, have no role in our democracy. By constraining corporate wealth and power, beginning with the constitutional amendment, we can restore some of the democracy those early reformers won for us.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.