Of, By, and For the Few

So far in the 2016 election, 992 million dollars has been raised by the candidates and 502 million has been raised by the Super PACs supporting them. Take a moment and let that sink in. That is $1.5 billion in the presidential race alone. This does not take into account the additional hundreds of millions being spent on down ballot races and legislation.

Thanks to an article by The Guardian, Americans had a peek behind closed doors this week. The “John Doe” files exposed how non disclosed donations to nonprofits were used during the Scott Walker campaign. These files are alarming, but not unexpected.

While some candidates in these races are focusing on small dollar donations, other candidates are accepting million dollar checks from top funders through various PACs. The problem here is that candidates have not been left with much of a choice. The 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC sped up an already dangerous situation – now allowing the largest corporations a wildly-outsized influence in local, state, and federal elections. After the Court’s decision, campaign contributions by organizations that don’t disclose donors went from 1% to 47%. Yep, dark money isn’t just a talking point – it is a real threat that is currently changing the face of elections as we know it. The winners of the 11 most competitive races in 2014 together had more than $131 million in dark money supporting them.

There is legislation that has been introduced to shed light on dark money (the DISCLOSE Act introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI] and Representative Chris van Hollen [D-MD]) and to tip the scales back in favor of ordinary Americans, away from the wealthy elite (Fair Elections Now Act introduced by Senator Richard Durbin [D-IL] and Representative John Sarbanes [D-MD]). But why? Why do we care other than all those numbers seem really big? Well… for a number of reasons:

What is being invested and what is being bought?

Does anyone altruistically donate to a campaign? Definitely. Does anyone offer a Super PAC funding a Congressional seat or presidential campaign $500,000 altruistically? Probably not. Campaign donations of this size must be seen as investments – investments in politicians who will keep preferential policy alive. For instance, many private equity managers, such as Paul Singer and Robert Mercer, have dumped numerous dollars into races where the candidate is in favor of legislation that keeps the carried interest tax loophole and other loopholes alive. It’s the best return on investment they make – half a million to a candidate that holds up legislation keeping the rate at which they pay taxes lower than that of teachers, doctors, and you.

Elections do not necessarily go to who pays the most for the seat – but the attention of the candidate is naturally more attuned to where the money is flowing from.

What does this mean for the ordinary citizen?

Say you are a local citizen in one of those competitive race states where outside spending is flowing, funds are not all disclosed, and the dollar tags attached to the election are much more than you make in even a year’s salary. This means that a megaphone has been put to the voice of special wealthy interests – some not even in your district – while your voice stays low. You may have some great suggestions for how the district should function, some deeply rooted concerns, or the general desire to get to know the potential representatives better. Unfortunately the likelihood of you getting a meeting with the candidate is very low. Meanwhile, those top dollar donors find it easier to get meetings. As Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires Morris Pearl mentions in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Meet the Donors:

“I think I have more access because I’m a donor. The thing is I can call any democratic congressman or most of the senators and say, “I want a meeting or I want to call or I want to talk about something,” yah know? And get my calls returned or get meetings inside. Even people with a few tens of thousands of dollars to spend, get a lot of access. Maybe not that much influence, but a huge amount of access which most American’s just don’t have.”

What does this mean for candidates?

Candidates can easily become empty suits in the quest to fill a Congressional seat. Millions of dollars are invested in you, there’s usually a return expected. Ideally, qualified candidates start out with the best intentions to better the lives of his/her potential future (or current) constituents. But when Super PACs are filling up airtime with ads against you, your opponent is hosting big ticket events that are getting great media attention, and you find yourself with a platform but no outlet, the key to staying afloat becomes money.

One Super PAC alone has pledged to spend $40 million on TV ads in five key battleground states. When $40 million dollars is pledged against you, candidates have to find the means to combat the opposition’s campaign. In international affairs this is called a “security dilemma” – someone on the other side is building up their arsenal, so you build up yours to a level just above where the other side did. Now the other side is forced to raise the ante… and on and on you spiral until you both have phenomenally outsized militias – or, in this case, abhorrently expensive elections.

What if all the time spent fundraising by politicians and outside groups was spent on finding real solutions and stronger legislation for the country? What if all that money were invested in infrastructure, jobs, schools, and the overall American economy?

What does this mean for democracy?

This means that we have a democracy that is out of balance. Honestly, it means we have an oligarchy – a few wealthy individuals are essentially running the show. This year, by definition, we have two one-percenters running for president and yet still they must spend significant time fundraising.

Both parties have expressed disdain for this flawed system. Earlier this year, Representative David Jolly (R-FL) made waves for exposing what many suspected was reality on 60 Minutes as part of the promotion for his STOP Act on 60 Minutes: several hours a day are built into elected official’s schedules where they are expected to place scripted calls to a number of potential top donors for fundraising.

And Americans of both ideology are also frustrated with this reality. In a 2015 poll, 84% of Americans think that money has too much influence in political campaigns, 85% of people think that at least some of the time (or most of the time) candidates promote policies that are beneficial to parties or individuals who donated to their campaigns, and almost half of the country thinks we need to completely rebuild our political campaign system.

If you stay on the road you are going, you will get where you are going. America has been on the road to paid for and bought for elected seats since even before 2010’s Court decision. The Court’s decision and any hold up on legislation for stricter caps or promoting public financing is simply accelerating this country’s journey down this path. It’s time to diverge from this road and reclaim a system that makes sense.

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