According to an article published by the New York Times, a dozen megadonors and their spouses contributed a combined $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups. This means that 12 individuals account for nearly one out of every 13 dollars raised. It is time to address the elite’s influence on American politics.
The top 1% has become too powerful, allowing our democracy to be an exclusionary realm for flaunting wealth. In an attempt to save democracy and move towards something like Dahl’s pure Polyarchy model, we must revive inclusiveness, inventing a society where all citizens are considered as political equals (Dahl, 1971).
Elites began to unfairly reap the benefits of their wealth in 2009 with the Supreme Court ruling of the case Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission. Citizens United is a conservative 501(c) nonprofit that funneled a million dollars into a film criticizing Hillary Clinton during the 2008 democratic election. They considered it legal under Election Communiteering, and the first amendment right of freedom of speech. Citizens United ultimately won the case, transforming the framework of campaign financing.
This case was key to empowering those with money as now the wealthy could stream large sums of soft money into PACs and other political groups. While donors typically do not even have to reveal their identity to donate for most organizations, another loophole they exploit is donating millions of dollars secretly under the guise of a nonprofit. PACs and political groups can then participate directly in politics, through advertisements, or by running phone banks. The elites get their political wishes fulfilled without a trace of accountability, eerily watching democracy crumble from the shadows.
The Supreme Court ruling precedent, set by supporting Citizens United, now threatens democracy due to its clear exclusionary nature. The uber-rich have the opportunity to shape the public political sphere by donating to PACs supporting their preferred candidates, or helping non-profits run slanderous advertisements against candidates. Citizens are unfairly disadvantaged by their economic status, and they are now further underrepresented in the political sphere.
This economic divide even discourages many Americans from voting due to feeling as if their vote doesn’t hold any weight. It’s proven that political participation correlates directly with income; the correlation coefficient for income between thousands of U.S Dollars up to $150,000 and percentage of people who voted in the 2016 Election is approximately 1, confirming a near-linear relationship between the two variables.
For the super-rich, it only further encourages self-motivated political involvement. In a study done by political scientists Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, 83 individuals were sampled, all with a mean income of $14,006,338 and a median income of $7,500,00. Of these individuals, 84% already tend to be more active in politics than the average citizen, and 99% of the sample participated in the Presidential election.
The wealthy’s easy access to PACs, nonprofits, other political groups, and even politicians themselves intensifies their participation in politics. The access not only includes the aforementioned political groups and nonprofits but also access to the politicians themselves. The system is simply more responsive to the rich.
If the masses are being cheated by a political system that doesn’t represent them, why has there not been any widespread revolt? Often the early stages of building democracy are accomplished by an insurrection of the poor, and the elites subsequently adjust their power to allow more mass representation. As economist Acemalaglou writes, the transitory nature of de facto power forces the elites to take more accountability in order to prevent a revolution, a key in stabilizing democracy. So why hasn’t severe consequences occurred?
Firstly, the average citizens are still getting their voices heard– but rarely. Gilens argues that this is due to a strong relationship “between what the public wants and what the government does, albeit with the status quo“. Thus, even when the average citizen is getting their voice heard, it is only due to the overlap in ideals with the most affluent citizens. This provides a dangerous illusion that inclusionary political responsiveness is working.
Secondly, capitalism creates a facade of open social classes, where anyone can be uber-rich and control their destiny. The promises of the American Dream aren’t as achievable as they were a century ago, yet people still dream of being wealthy and having immense control. Elites also do philanthropic displays of their exuberant wealth, attempting to convince the populace of their political activity is not simply for personal gain.
Finally, civic engagement is still occurring in communities with a high tenacity of knowledge. However, knowledge does not always mean accuracy. Those who participate actively and thoroughly in politics tend to be either fueled by fear and consume conspiracy information, or a college-educated populace. The latter is vital– the people being governed need some awareness and urge to participate and continue to contest and participate, while the primary has become more of a hindrance to democracy.
It should be stressed that wealthy elites influencing politics is a nonpartisan issue. Out of the twelve most affluent donors, half of them were registered Democrats and the other half were registered Republicans. Both parties feel disadvantaged by the elite’s grasp on politics, but manifest that anger in different forms.
Median-earning Democrats tend to focus more heavily on wealth inequality and social programs to combat the elite’s grasps, while median-earning Republicans take out their anger in a more misguided manner. As Hochschild writes in her book, “Strangers in their Own Land” Republicans believe changing the status quo is the cause of their economic struggles. They feel angry, harmfully associating changing demographics with their personal economic struggles. These folks feel they are being cut in line by minorities for blue-collar jobs and that the government doesn’t care about the “hard-working American” anymore. That anger and dissent for the government were prevalent in the despicable insurrection at the Capital.
In order to achieve a more inclusive democracy for all and stop the trajectory towards plutocracy, extreme wealth must be taken out of politics. The Citizen’s United Vs. FEC case must be relooked at, and the campaign funding process must be reformed. It creates a correlation where there should be none; it equates money to freedom of speech and makes corporations synonymous with people.
Taking money out of politics will not be a simple task. Democracy is dependent on capitalism, and capitalism thrives off wealth disparities. We will continue to see candidates financially similar to the likes of Donald Trump and Micheal Bloomberg, catapulted to the top by their wealth. But with stricter campaigning laws, we can at least restrict the sheer amount of influence money has in politics.
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Akee, R. (2020, September 24). Voting and income. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://econofact.org/voting-and-income
Center for Responsive Politics. (2021). Dark Money Basics. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.opensecrets.org/darkmoney/dark-money-basics.php
Citizens United. (2021). Citizen’s United Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from http://www.citizensunited.org/frequently-asked-questions.aspx
Dahl, R. (1971). Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University. doi:https://rollins.instructure.com/courses/9042/files/705050?module_item_id=252083
Gilens, M., & Page, B. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics,12(3), 564-581. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43281052
Goldmacher, S. (2021, April 20). Dozen Megadoners gave $3.4 Billion, one in every 13 dollars, since 2009. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/us/politics/megadonors-political-spending.html
Hochschild, Arlie. (2016). Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: The New Press.
Lipset, S. (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review, 53(1), 69-105. doi:10.2307/1951731
Oyez. (2021). Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2008/08-205
Page, B., Bartels, L., & Seawright, J. (2013). Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans. Perspectives on Politics,11(1), 51-73. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43280689
Sanders, B. (2019). Get Corporate Money out of Politics. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://berniesanders.com/issues/money-out-of-politics/