Tens of millions of political dollars have been injected into the 13 states holding their primaries this Super Tuesday as the presidential candidates angle for the 1,639 delegates that are up for grabs. Because of such massive outlays, political spending in 2016 will likely reach $10 billion, blowing the roof off all previous records. Yet, amidst the blinding blizzard of campaign cash, many people might wonder whether money really has that much of an impact on elections.
When Jeb Bush recently pulled out of the campaign, Donald Trump cynically quipped about Bush’s lackluster performance: “It shows you, you can’t buy elections anymore. It’s really true. I think people are too smart for it.”
Tell that to the thousands of candidates for Congress and for state-wide office who, day in and day out, spend most of their time raising money right now, and they would likely disagree. They might, though, say that no amount of money can overcome a lackluster campaign.
What is true is that the damage done by money to politics isn’t in the spending, it’s in the giving. The net effect of all that political giving poses a direct threat to our American way of self-government and, with it, our ability to solve our collective problems. The marriage of great wealth and political influence has strangled the political process, something I document extensively in a new a book I recently co-authored called Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It. My co-author Wendell Potter, a New York Times bestselling author, and I spent the past six months writing an easy-to-digest narrative of how money in politics subverts our democracy, and what we can — and must — do to fix it.
In Nation on the Take we show how the giving buys access, greases the skids for government contracts and ambassadorships and torques the policymaking process on behalf of the givers. And it’s the pursuit of the givers that demeans our public servants, mires them in the mindsets of the wealthiest among us, and takes them away from reaching across the aisle to legislate.
Take pharmaceutical companies. Recall how one of the first moves by the Obama administration to ease passage of the Affordable Care Act was to give Big Pharma immunity on price regulations, despite the fact that Americans pay more for drugs than any other country. The idea of price reductions — bulk bargaining, the importation of generic drugs from other countries – have come up repeatedly since then, and have been repeatedly shot down. That’s in part because the industry’s grip on Washington never relaxes. In the last presidential cycle, the pharmaceutical industry injected $50 million into campaign coffers and disclosed nearly $240 million in lobbying expenditures. Numbers from the industry this cycle are likely to exceed that.
Or take what the New York Times‘ Gretchen Morgenson told Bill Moyers a few years ago when asked whether or not the financial crisis — which, according to the Treasury Department has cost Americans at least 8.8 million jobs and $19 trillion in household wealth — could happen again. She said, “It will happen again and the unfortunate fact is we did not fix the problem.” When asked why, her response was: “Well, a big part of it is the money problem, that money – the big powered, moneyed institutions are in control in Washington, there’s no doubt about it.”
Or take the conclusion of a lengthy examination by the Reuters news agency on the failed attempts to reduce childhood obesity rates in America: “At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States… They largely dominated policymaking.”
But while it’s clear the link between ordinary American people and their government is broken, I believe we are better positioned to make real progress than at any time in the past decade. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted late last year, a remarkable image of agreement emerged from the politically divisive fog. We, the people, in identical percentages of Republicans and Democrats — 76 percent each — said: “Money has a greater influence on politics and elected officials today than in the past.”
Other people, who are inside the game, join those percentages.
- Jack Quinn, the co-founder of the lobbying firm Quinn, Gillespie and Associates, wrote in an AMA on Reddit in late 2013 that political money “has reached the point of being a cancer on our democracy.”
- Journalist Bob Woodward, who of course broke the Watergate story, which was at its heart a campaign-finance scandal, warned: “There is a new governing crisis here and it is getting worse. It is about money in politics. It involves both political parties. I won’t name names. If you follow the news at all, you know.”
- Issue One Advisory Board member Richard Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics counsel, noted in the New York Times last month that our current system of campaign financing “is a betrayal of the vision of participatory democracy embraced by the founders of our country.”
- Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has spent most of her life writing about power and American politics, similarly observed last year that: “The result of such unbalanced concentrated power in the U.S. system of government is exactly as Madison and other founding fathers feared: failure of effective republican self-government due to powerful factions and corruption.”
Madison also feared the effects of apathy and resignation on the citizenry. And that is our biggest enemy. Skeptics say that the Supreme Court, with its Citizens United decision, has created an insurmountable barricade to legislation. But that’s just not true. So much can be done, regardless of what Justice Kennedy wrote in that decision. We can create new ways of financing politics, as New York City did years ago when it instituted a system of small-donor financing. We can simultaneously sever the tie between lobbying and money, as South Carolina did back in the 1990s. We can end “dark money” and create transparency for every political dollar given and spent. We can cut super PACs down to size by making sure they are no longer capable of focusing on a single-candidate and are truly independent of candidate’s campaigns. And we can restore the effectiveness and oversight of the Federal Election Commission.
By the way, bills already exist on Capitol Hill to accomplish all of the items listed above. The real barrier to change isn’t the Supreme Court. It is us, plain and simple, and our unwillingness to exert our constitutionally granted power over our elected representatives to force them to fix this mess. As long as we continue to allow politics to be financed in this country as it currently is, the system will be continue to be rigged against us and we will only have ourselves to point to in the years to come as we fail to fix the great challenges facing our country.
That’s why Nation on the Take also includes a battle plan. Our strategy for winning reform is both aspirational and pragmatic, and it is my hope that Nation on the Take will be a call to arms for those who want to move forward in our fight to restore America’s original promise.
Read an excerpt from Nation on the Take at www.issueone.org/nation-on-the-take/.