Drain the Swamp? The Role of Money in American Politics: Part 1

Total outside spending during the 2016 campaign season was $1.4 billion, more than a 350% increase over the 2008 campaign.

The Extent of the Problem: America For Sale

To what extent does the greater American public hold influence in the formation of government policy? A 2014 article written by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Paige substantially supports the notion that in America there is virtually no connection between U.S. public opinion and U.S. government policy.

In their study of 1,779 different policy issues, the main discovery was that economic elites and organised interest groups representing business interests have a substantial amount of influence over the U.S. government policy while average citizens have little to no influence at all.

Just to be clear, this does not mean that popular opinion never translates into concrete legislation. Often it does. Rather, when U.S. policy reflects public opinion, it is because public opinion happens to dovetail with the interests of the elite. In other words, the average citizen does not always lose out. They often get the policies they favour, but only because those policies are also preferred by the economic elite.

If this wasn’t worrying enough, this study relied on data from before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in 2010. That ruling was based on the idea that financial campaign contributions are a form of political speech protected by the first amendment and that this privilege is extended to corporations and interest groups. This ruling has ultimately allowed wealthy individuals to use their financial capital to disproportionately influence the direction of election campaigns.

At the most cosmetic level, this problem is easy to spot. In the 2008 presidential election cycle that preceded the Citizens United ruling, the total amount of outside spending on political campaigns was close to $300 million. Just 8 years later, the total outside spending during the 2016 campaign season topped $1.4 billion, more than a 350% increase in just two presidential election cycles.

When U.S. policy reflects public opinion, it is because public opinion happens to coincide with what elite groups want

Let’s pause and begin by defining “dark money”, and how corporations, wealthy individuals, and interest groups effectively circumvent maximum individual donation amounts (currently set at $2,700 by the Federal Election Commission). First, “dark money” is expenditures by non-profit groups who are not required to disclose their donors. These groups can receive unlimited financial contributions from corporations, unions, or individuals. That money can then be used for various activities like buying advertising space or financing phone banks in support of a candidate.

But this article is not meant to criticize dark money and super PACs (Political Action Committees) because these are problems that exist at the surface. The roots extend much deeper and threaten to crack the very foundations on which American democracy is constructed.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Constitutional law professor, says that we have misunderstood the effects of the Supreme Court decisions. He claims that one aspect that we missed is not the move by businesses and money into politics, but the phenomenon of politicians buying insurance against the potential money that could be spent by threatening super PACs.

The dynamic that super PACs create with their war chests is a dynamic of fear within incumbent politicians that just weeks before an election, mass quantities of money will be dumped into advertisements and strategies to undermine them. Thus, they need to prepare for that.

So, how does a politician rationally prepare for such an imminent attack? One way is to affiliate with a friendly group who is willing to spend an equal amount in their support, and those groups more often than not tend to be other super PACs. In order to affiliate and gain the support of a friendly super PAC, politicians have to position themselves and signal that he or she is the candidate that the super PAC wants to support.

Fortunately for politicians, some super PACs are savvy enough to make this very straight forward by setting standards for their support by creating a checklist, or giving a voter rating to politicians based on how they voted on specific issues and policies, essentially creating a target for politicians to meet. If the politician passes these standards then the group will be willing to support them. Now what we have is a situation where there are people behaving in a way that assures the protection that they need to defend against money spent against them. Thus, the super PAC has achieved its objective without spending a dime.

This dynamic exists even without the political insurance aspect. Funding a political campaign, especially at the federal level, has become so expensive that politicians ultimately spend significant chunks of their time simply raising money instead of writing policy or lobbying for bills. They have essentially become trapped in a system where they have to raise huge stockpiles of cash just to remain in office.

This is not to disparage politicians for focusing so much time on filling their campaign accounts. Even the most honest politicians, who truly love talking to and standing up for their constituents, are forced into this awful situation.

They [politicians] have essentially become trapped in a system where they have to raise huge stockpiles of cash just to remain in office.

Essentially, the funding of campaigns has been outsourced to the smallest micro-fraction of individuals in American society. And because this funding is necessary for the survival of politicians, we have created a system whereby politicians spend more time listening to the elite interests who are crucial to their political survival than to the general population.

This condition plays out in the way that Gilens and Paige suggested. For example, according to a Pew Research Poll in March 2018, 82% of U.S. adults agree that the Earth is warming and 67% believe that the U.S. government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change. At the same time, there is no legislation being passed to mitigate the consequences at the federal level. Granted there are many underlying factors at play that contribute to the disagreement on this issue, but the lack of climate change proposals and passed bills is a gap from public opinion.

Another consistently debated issue is gun legislation. Although a very heated debate in the U.S, there is some evidence of common ground within the weeds on a few certain proposals. Virtually 90% of U.S. adults believe that mentally ill people should be barred from owning guns; 84% of all adults believe that there should be FBI background check requirements at gun shows; 83% of Americans believe that people on no fly lists should also be barred from gun ownership. With these three statistics there is virtual agreement between gun owners and non-gun owners.

There is more political division between owners and non-owners on the issues of creating a federal database to track gun sales, banning assault-style weapons, and banning high capacity magazines. However there is still a majority amongst all adults in favour of all these propositions; 71%, 68%, 65%, respectively. That said, there is no federal effort to push any of these proposals into law, highlighting another massive gap between public opinion and federal legislation.

These are only two examples of the gap in public opinion and federal legislation but so long as the incentive for politicians is to listen to means of their survival then public policy will only follow public opinion so far. And the long-term effects of a democratic government that does not successfully pass legislation that an overwhelming majority of people want, is anyone’s guess.