As most of the Midterm Election races have been decided, it is important to ask how we got here. Left leaning media have given much of the credit of the Democratic party to young voters, who came out in droves to vote and support Democratic candidates like PA senate candidate John Fetterman and 25 year old Maxwell Frost, the first gen-z member of congress. The right have blamed the spending strategy of the Republican party, specifically minority speaker Mitch McConnel.
Beyond factors like voter turnout and party strategy being instrumental in determining the midterm election results, it would be a mistake to ignore the millions of dollars that the nations’ wealthiest donated to political action committees and other groups that support both the Democratic and the Republican parties. The magnitude to which spending by the rich has dwarfed any grassroots, local, or even statewide fundraising and mobilization efforts, we can attribute over $500 million dollars in spending for the midterm elections to 10 people! According to Bloomberg, nine of the most contested senate races received almost $300 million dollars from out of state donors. The influence of the super rich in American elections is not a new phenomenon, illustrated by the report by Issue One, which concluded that 12 “mega donors” are responsible for $1 for every $13 raised for political groups and federal candidates since 2009. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in FEC v Citizens’s United “opened the floodgates” for further political influence from corporations and wealthy donors, establishing this insidious trend in American electoral politics.
Why is campaign spending such a threat to democracy? Political candidates from both parties recognize the importance of funding in keeping their campaigns viable and creating conditions for success. However, at the end of the day, elections are supposed to act as a mechanism to translate voter preferences into political outcomes, where elected candidates must be responsive to voters who put them there. The influence of exorbitant amounts of money flowing into campaigns from a small few makes it difficult to determine who the candidate is truly going to be responsive to,the preferences of voters or donors? This question of loyalty of elected officials to voters or donors is not an abstract one, as political scientist Jordan Kujala with a PHD from UC Davis asked this same question, and found that , “… Republicans and Democratic nominees for Congress, specifically the US House, are more responsive ideologically to the partisan donors in their district than they are to their primary or general electorates.” It is important to note, these findings focus on data from 2002-2010, pre Citizens United v FEC, but the implication that candidates’ choices are shaped by ideological preferences of donors is an important one. Local issues and voices are no longer sufficient to mobilize voters and supporters alike, but have taken a backseat to strategic campaign donations made to ensure both local and national victories for the Republican or Democratic parties. The implications of voters losing power over political outcomes whether perceived or in reality is that they can and will turn to alternative means of expressing their beliefs, such as violence, exemplified in the January 6th attacks, where election integrity came into question.
The seemingly growing disconnect between everyday voters and their respective parties and candidates has contributed to declining satisfaction with the state of democracy in the United States, illustrated in a PEW survey in 2021, where roughly 6 out of 10 US adults expressed dissatisfaction with the way democracy was working. Granted, there are many factors that influence Americans levels of satisfaction with democracy, but given the contentious 2016 and 2020 Presidential election cycle and most recently the Midterm Elections, voters are finding that expressing their political preferences via elections are not proving fruitful in terms of election results policy outcomes, weakening trust between voters and the state, leaving a gap for wealthier Americans to clearly express their preferences via donations and make a tangible impact on the shape of American politics.
Not only does money influence political outcomes, but we know that powerful corporations also have the social capital and means to get in the ear of Washington and push for or against certain policy outcomes in the form of lobbying. I hope to explore the broader impacts of large and small scale political donations, PACS, and lobbying on democracy in the United States further.