Like many of you, I was immediately drawn to the Bernie Sanders campaign. Whenever conservatives or even certain Democrats characterize Sanders’ millennial base, they always assume that we were simply voting for free college or for “pie-in-the-sky” socialist ideas. That’s not the reason I voted for Bernie and that’s not the reason I waited in lines for hours to see him speak at Rec Hall. Sure, tuition-free school would be great. Also, I agree with many of the ideas that critics called fantasy. However, Bernie won my vote and my support by acknowledging the crucial first step in getting progressive ideas implemented. Bernie called for serious campaign finance reform, including a repeal of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case. Bernie brought the issue of money in politics to center stage in this election cycle. As Progressives, it is our responsibility to continue fighting to get big money out of politics.
Getting money out of politics is the most important factor in making any sort of progress on almost any issue. We can be vocal about any issue that we want, and swing huge numbers of people to agree with us, but if our elected officials have a financial incentive to dismiss said issue, it will be dismissed. Big money in politics has given an extreme edge to the super-rich. The top one-percent of Americans contributed about 68% of campaign funding in the 2012 midterms. (4) A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Princeton University shows the impact that donors have. Gilens and Page analyzed 1,779 policy outcomes over a 20 year period, and concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” (1) Compared to average citizens, or those around the 50th percentile of income distribution, individuals at the 90th percentile were found to have their preferences matched in policy 15 times as often. (1) Another study, conducted by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman at Berkeley, consisted of a political organization contacting 191 congressional offices requesting meetings to discuss a pending bill. (1) The members of this organization were randomly assigned the identity of either constituent or campaign donor. Of the people identified as constituents, 5 percent were given access. However, those identified as campaign donors saw that number jump to 19 percent. (1) It is becoming increasingly clear that “We the People” is becoming “We the super-rich.”
Campaign finance is an extremely complicated issue. In many cases, there are limits to the amount of money an individual can give. An individual can contribute a maximum of $2,700 to campaign committees per election cycle. Sounds reasonable enough. However, Super-PACs, which are supposedly aligned but independent of political campaigns, can accept an unlimited amount of money, and thus can be funded by a handful of large donors. In fact, we can see exactly who funds these Super-PACs because it is required that their donors are disclosed. On the other hand, donations can also be filtered through something called a 501(c)(4), in which the identity of the donors is not required to be disclosed. (2)
In almost every case, this money is essential to the politician’s election or reelection chances. House candidates that outspent their opponents in the 2012 midterms won 95% of those elections. (4) This isn’t because money buys elections, it’s because without substantial backing you aren’t even in the running. There is a common misconception that the influence of money in the American political process is one where the politician accepts a large sum of money and then does whatever his or her donor wants. This would look like the following: Jane Doe is all-about combating climate change, but big bad Rex Tillerson comes in with his millions (that he made for the company that helped discover global warming, but that’s for another blog post) and pays off Doe, who proceeds to vote against any sort of climate regulation. This isn’t normally how things work. The large donors instead find candidates that already align with them on issues, and fund them. To go back to our example, Rex Tillerson would find a candidate who, say, thinks global warming is a hoax, and backs that canidate financially. In many cases these donors give money to multiple candidates that all agree with them, which can even be seen in the possibly hundreds of millions that the DeVos’s have given to Republicans over the years.
Additionally, Politicians have to go in search of donations, especially those involved in less-covered House races, and this process takes up crucial time. Representative Rick Nolan (D-MN) estimates that representatives spend on average 30 hours per week on the phone pursuing donations. (5) This is crucial time that could be spent on the issues that these representatives are elected to address, but instead is spent telemarketing.
Combating big money in politics is the first domino that must fall if we are to make real progress on the issues that are important to us. It will be extremely difficult to make progress on an issue like climate change if the fossil fuel industry continues to fund politicians that deny climate change’s existence. It will be extremely difficult to combat rising income inequality without first putting the average American on equal footing with the Wall St. executive. The same can be said for almost any issue that was part of our platform. Money in politics is the dam that has to break. There are many avenues through which to do this. Personally I am associated with Wolf-PAC, a group fighting for the states to ratify a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics, and I encourage you to explore this option. However, I encourage brainstorming to find the most efficient way to solve this issue, as I believe that getting money out of politics is the most influential battle that we can fight.
Penn State College