Photo by Jerger. From The Progressive, 1933.
Here’s a perspective you don’t usually hear about the vast infusions of cash into the political process: So what?
Yes, spending by fat cats and pressure groups, on elections as well as lobbying, at the federal, state, and local levels, is at an all-time high. When people talk about politics these days, they sound like Carl Sagan invoking the cosmos: billions and billions.
Of course, all this spending makes it harder to have a representative democracy, but it does not make it impossible. This is not the time, à la Thoreau’s admonition, to practice resignation. Too many of us are defeatist and paralyzed, when we should be indignant and determined.
A protester outside the Wisconsin state Senate, as it was about to increase the flow of dollars into the electoral process, recently declared: “I don’t know what it will take to get people to understand: Our government has literally been purchased.”
But this statement is overblown. Even in Wisconsin, where Republicans have gleefully made unbridled use of their power to crush perceived foes and maximize their partisan advantage, money doesn’t always get its way. In fact, it can backfire, as when Republican state Representative Joel Kleefisch was forced to withdraw a bill regarding child support payments after it came to light that one of his campaign donors had helped write it, specifically changing the law to benefit the donor.
A couple of years back, voters in Coralville, Iowa, repudiated an attempt to sway local elections by an outside group affiliated with billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. “Residents said the group’s mailings, phone calls, door-to-door canvassing, and social media ads fueled a backlash as the upper middle-class, Democratic-leaning city of 20,000 residents rallied behind the incumbents,” the Associated Press reported.
In Wisconsin, voters in Iron County similarly rebuffed the Koch brothers’ attempt to promote an environmentally reckless iron ore mine by labeling a slate of local candidates “anti-mining radicals.” The mine also tanked, despite slavish efforts by state Republicans to accommodate it.
In November 2014, voters in four “Red” states—Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota—overcame well-funded opposition to pass ballot measures hiking the minimum wage. And an all-out effort by big-money interests to oust progressives from the city council in Richmond, California, failed miserably.
Bob Dylan famously said that money doesn’t talk, it swears, and people don’t like being sworn at. That creates opportunities not just to push back against the power of money but, as in judo, to turn an opponent’s superior strength into a liability.
Let’s listen to Bernie Sanders, on the campaign trail: “I don’t have a super PAC. I don’t want a super PAC. I don’t need a super PAC.”
It’s not just a good applause line; it could signal the beginning of a new kind of politics. Super PACs, which the U.S. Supreme Court has unleashed to “independently” raise and spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates, are not all-powerful.
For one thing, the money they raise and spend is not, for the most part, dark money. While super PACs do launder some group-to-group donations, most big-money individual donors are named, and all expenditures must be promptly reported. (Much dark money does flow into the process through issue-ad groups, which are different from super PACs.)
It was this requisite disclosure that allowed The New York Times to tabulate that just 158 families accounted for nearly half the money poured into the presidential sweepstakes in the first half of 2015. The paper named names and ran aerial shots of their grotesque, sprawling mansions.
The messages this money produces can peeve as well as persuade. Witness how Sanders deftly imploded an attack from a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton. “This is what negative campaigning is about,” he told Time magazine, responding to a sleazy attempt by Correct the Record to tie him to late Venezuelan authoritarian Hugo Chavez because, when Sanders was a congressman from Vermont, he helped broker a deal to buy discounted Venezuelan heating oil for that state’s low-income residents. “I think it’s very unfortunate, and that is the kind of politics that I am trying to change.”
Even the seemingly unembarrassable Donald Trump has disavowed the super PACs formed to support his candidacy, and has called on them to return the money they’ve raised. “I am self-funding my campaign and therefore I will not be controlled by the donors, special interests, and lobbyists who have corrupted our politics and politicians for far too long,” Trump posted on his Facebook page. (Actually, thanks again to disclosure, we know that Trump’s claim of self-funding is false; federal filings show that through September 30 he has given his campaign just $1.8 million, compared to $4 million from others.)
Moreover, super PACs are limited in what they can do; for instance, they can’t pay day-to-day costs. Those bills must be borne by candidate campaigns, which are still subject to donation limits. So the campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker went belly-up for want of cash despite his $20 million super PAC. And former Texas Governor Rick Perry bailed with $13 million in his super pot.
Just as these candidates’ flush super PACs could not save them, Sanders’s lack of a PAC did not render his campaign dead on arrival. Through September 30, the democratic socialist had raised $41.2 million for his campaign. While that trailed Hillary Clinton’s $72.1 million, it topped all of the sixteen major Republican candidates. (Ben Carson led the Republican pack at $31.3 million.)
Sanders has proven that a candidate can mount a credible campaign for the nation’s highest office by appealing to a broad base of little-money donors. (His average donation in the third quarter of 2015, when he nearly matched Clinton dollar-for-dollar, was about $25.) That may not take Sanders all the way to the nomination, but he has shown that a candidacy and even a movement can be built from the grassroots up.
That is a positive lesson progressives can carry into the future. Sanders has created the machinery for a movement that operates apart from the dictates of well-heeled donors, driven by a massive number of smaller ones. It offers a positive alternative to the cynicism that big-money elections invite. It could be the start of something big.
There is no denying that the role of money in elections is a huge problem. The efforts of people like Eric O’Keefe, profiled elsewhere in this issue, to open new avenues for corporations and the rich to influence elections and public policy are a threat to our democracy. People like the Koch brothers do have outsized influence, and everything about that is obnoxious and unfair.
But while big money presents a daunting challenge for progressives, let’s face it, we already had our work cut out. Candidates hostile to progressive ideas have prevailed at the polls long before the cost of a U.S. presidential election exceeded the gross domestic product of some smaller countries. The good thing is that, now, much of the public agrees that money plays too great a role. We can build on that to create a culture of skepticism toward bought-and-paid-for political messaging.
Mike McCabe, who tracked campaign spending for years before launching a new political movement called Blue Jean Nation, addressed the role of money last September at the Fighting Bob Fest rally in Madison. He pushed back against the notion that runaway spending presents an insurmountable obstacle to progressive change, faulting the “habit of assuming that there is only one form of political capital that is relevant,” that being money.
“We judge candidates based on whether they’ve got enough money,” McCabe told the crowd. “We make so many judgments about politics, and about our place in the political arena, based on money. We need to recapture the understanding that Bob La Follette and his progressive allies had, that there are other forms of political capital—provocative ideas, organized people—that, when married, can form a concoction powerful enough to overcome even the enormous sums of organized money that we are up against today.”
That’s a powerful challenge; let’s rise to meet it.