The cost of American democracy

All efforts to curb or contain election spending in the United States have failed and a 2010 Supreme Court ruling effectively abolished spending limits by allowing super Political Action Committees to spend as much as they want  (as long as they do not co-ordinate their campaigns with that of an individual candidate – which is no limitation in practice). The result is that election expenditure – already hugh – is ballooning.

These days to run for US President can cost up to a billion dollars. One analysis predicts that the campaign spending this year on presidential, congressional and state elections may exceed $6 billion. How do candidates raise such sums? By appealing to private interests that will expect those interests to be advanced by the candidate in office and by those in office spending an inordinate amount of time fund raising for the next election.

Given all this, it is not surprising that the people elected under this system are often themselves very wealthy. An article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper explains:

“The trend towards oligarchy in the polity is already clear. There are 250 millionaires in Congress. Their median net worth is $891,506, nine times the typical US household. Around 11% are in the nation’s top 1%, including 34 Republicans and 23 Democrats. And that’s before you get to Romney, whose personal wealth is double that of the last eight presidents combined. All of this would be problematic at the best of times, but in a period of rising inequality it is obscene.”

Gary Younge is absolutely right when he comments:

“The issue here is not class envy, hating rich people because they are rich, but class interests – cementing the advantages of the privileged over the rest. The problem is not personal, it’s systemic. In the current climate, it means a group of wealthy people in business will decide which wealthy people in Congress they would like to tell poor people what they can’t have because times are hard. And unless the ruling is overturned there is precious little that can be done about it.”

As the Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi once put it: “The value systems of those with access to power and of those far removed from such access cannot be the same. The viewpoint of the privileged is unlike that of the underprivileged.” If it takes vast sums to run an election campaign and most candidates are themselves wealthy, how can the interests of most citizens be represented and served?


  • Michael Grace, Sr.

    This article raises two important questions:
    1) Do large campaign contributions by individuals and special interests undermine the interests of average citizens: and
    2) Does “oligarchy” representation bode ill for the “99%”?
    In my opinion, I suggest the answers to both questions are a qualified “no.”

    A vast majority of Americans believe too much money is spent on political campaigns and an overwhelming majority disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United which led to the creation of Super PACS (ironically, most of the money funding today’s Super PACS in the Republican Primary comes from a couple of billionaires, not corporate interests). A grass-roots organization has formed to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the court’s ruling, but this process will take a very long time. The point is, Americans accept that political contributions are a form of “protected” speech under our First Amendment and tolerate this spending while at the same time support attempts to restrict it.

    Most candidates receive contributions from supporters who already believe in their positions on specific issues, whether social or economic. Money is not going to change the basic philosophy of a candidate. A candidate further has to have money to campaign and communicate, particularly in the media age, but money alone is no guarantee of victory, as Mitt Romney learned in the South Carolina primary. Barack Obama badly trailed Hillary Clinton in financial contributions at the beginning of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. But his message resonated with voters and he won, picking up support and contributions along the way. Many similar examples exist.

    Whether Super PACS will have a disproportionate impact on the upcoming election remains to be seen. Most (not all) Americans are pretty sophisticated about claims they see and hear on tv. Americans know that political ads lie, distort and exaggerate. And, yes, despite polls that show voters hate negative ads, election results prove that negative ads work because Americans expect rough and tumble debate in their politics. Often times, failed candidates prefer to blame their defeats on being “out spent” by their opponents rather than admitting that their message was simply rejected by the voters.

    Special interests also will always have a place in American politics because of another clause in the First Amendment which guarantees the right of citizens “…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In today’s language, we call that “lobbying.” There are laws already in place to curb the influence of special interests, but the reality is that money buys access even though it is illegal to buy votes. Those who try to buy or sell votes will be sent to jail if convicted as many recent lawbreakers have learned.

    America has long been an oligarchic democracy and for a very good reason: in a nation of farmers only the well-to-do or the wealthy could afford the time off from their work to campaign and serve in public office. The same holds true today. In addition, the common people were never fully trusted with the vote. It was not until 1913, for example, that the Constitution was changed to allow for the direct election of U.S. Senators (prior to this, they were elected by their respective state legislatures). And, yet, two of the last three people to serve as president were not wealthy individuals when they were elected: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both also were married to working women. I could list countless other of the “non-wealthy” elected to public office who served with distinction.

    Americans do not begrudge the wealthy. We are a nation of “haves and will-haves.” Americans do begrudge the wealthy who appear out of touch with the common life of their fellow citizens, a problem that Mitt Romney currently has in connecting with voters. Sen. Edward “Teddy” Kennedy was a billionaire, yet he was a legendary hero for working people. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (a real Rockefeller) is another hero for working people. I could name many others. Wealth in America, in and of itself, does not necessarily mean the interests of the average citizen will be ignored.

    In essence America democracy requires that to be elected to public office, all candidates, even the wealthiest and highest-born, must beg, crawl, humble and embarrass themselves before the voters; subject themselves to intense public scrutiny of theirs and their families’ personal and private lives; and be the target of often outlandish lies and attacks on their record and personal character. For better or worse, American democracy is not for sissies and any citizen who choses can get into the arena.

  • Russ

    Hi Roger,

    You write: ‘The result is that election expenditure – already high – is ballooning.’

    High compared to what?

    The UK does not have an elected head of state, so presumably the UK spends zero on that non-existent election.

    The UK referendum on the Lisbon treaty – again, another cost savings from a non-existent election.

    I could go on…

    The U.S. has about 530,000 elected posts across the nation, so we spend a huge amount of resources filling those slots.

    Here where I live, you can elect a sheriff, judges, the school board, the attorney-general, the head of the utilities regulator, etc. We even can decide on whether our local government can borrow money for capital improvements such as school construction.

    As for spending on campaigns — that’s just people having their say, whether through their union, association or corporation. Let everyone have their say. Why restrict anyone who wants to chip-in their point of view on a candidate or issue? Political systems that restrict this activity, in my view, are undemocratic.

    So there is a cost to democracy: The U.S. has more of it and we pay more. It’s worth the price.

  • Roger Darlington

    Thanks for your comprehensive and thoughtful comment, Michael.

    We really will have to debate this when I visit the US this year. You are more defensive/accepting of current arrangements than I expected.

  • Michael Grace, Sr.

    Yes we will have to talk about this more. I’m not defensive or accepting. Just a realist and I do get rather pedantic.

    Super PACs are a fact and only a constitutional amendment will end them. Remember, they cannot spend money directly to help a candidate get elected. Reasonable restrictions already exist on direct political contributions (hard money) which do work.

    The amount of money spent on political campaigns is obscene but that’s the cost of free speech.

    It could be possible to write a law or come up with a scheme to limit political spending, and many proposals have been suggested. But the Republican Party is in favor of unlimited political spending which makes any proposal difficult to get a super majority in the Senate. Our current court is also very conservative (several state laws limiting money at the state and local also have been struck down by this court over the past two years.)

    Fortunately, “enough” money and a good grass-roots mobilization campaign can neutralize big money if your candidate has a message that resonates.

    I’m so looking forward to your visit and the opportunity to sit out in the garden over a cocktail to solve this problem.

  • Roger Darlington

    Hi, Russ.

    Let me answer your direct question directly.

    Current political campaign costs in the USA are high and ballooning compared to what they were. In the past decade, soft money has increased by more than four times – see statistics here.

    You rightly conclude that democracy has a price – but this begs some very serious questions in the context of the USA:
    1) Should there be any limit to that price?
    2) Does the rapidly increasing price benefit democracy?
    3) Does the need constantly to conduct fund raising detract from the elected politician’s time and energy to do the job for which he or she was elected?
    4) Does the need for large and growing sums to mount an effective election campaign effectively limit the range of candidates who can realistically run for office with a real chance of being elected?
    5) Are large sums of money contributed to campaigns and parties without risk to the independent judgement of candidates and officials in the policies which they advance or pursue – or, to be blunt, does money shape policy making in ways which advance the interests of those with money rather than those without?

  • Russ

    Hey Roger — if you come visit the USA, be sure to stop in Atlanta! You are more than welcome here.

    I believe that donations (or spending) should not limited in amount by law, but always fully and promptly disclosed on the internet. Then voters can make up their own mind whether a candidate is “owned” by a union or corporate interest.

    There should be no limit because all of this is voluntary giving. No one is being forced to donate.

    I do believe that media outlets should be required by law to charge all candidates the same type of fee for political advertising (there are some laws that do a bit of this already in effect).

    Other than that, I don’t see why the government has any business determining which types of people and which types of organizations can do with their time and resources vis-a-vis political debates.

    The political spending amounts in the wikipedia article you reference are not very large. Consider that the federal, state and local budgets combined for one year is a staggering $6,200 billion. Over a four year election cycle, the combined state and federal budgets probably total about $24,000 billion. So if the people in the USA donate $6 billion over that same 4-year cycle to candidates, I’m not that worried: It is a small amount by comparison to what is at stake, which is control over the government’s allocation of resources to all parts of society.

    The article you quote says that Romney has more wealth than the previous eight presidents combined and calls that obscene. But I would think it obscene to ban Romney from running for office pursuant to some government restriction. Why not let the people decide? Surely, they know he is wealthy?


  • Michael Grace, Sr.

    You will be interested to know that as a result of our discussion, I was motivated to attend the opening session of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) political/legislative conference yesterday afternoon which is being held in D.C. this week.

    You will appreciate this report:

    The discussion topics on the first day included “Our Broken Democracy,” the Citizens United decision, “Money is Not Speech,” and public financing laws. The speakers included the president of a big NGO called Common Cause which is one of the leading organization pushing for a constitutional amendment to limit the impact of the Citizens United decision. The speeches were rousing and the rhetoric reflected many of the sentiments expressed in the article on your website. Clearly, the massive spending of Super PACS during the Republican campaign is raising public awareness and concern about these issues to unprecedented levels.

    After the conference, I had dinner with a former colleague who is responsible for the political/legislative work in NY/NJ and New England states. He and I had a long discussion about these issues and how best to address them. My friend is a good “labor lefty” (we call ourselves progressives now) and voiced every point that you raised.

    Here’s a summary of our conversation points on which we both agreed:

    1. Even if an amendment is passed that declares corporations are not people, the independent expenditures part of the court’s ruling will still stand; independent expenditures by wealthy individuals and nonprofit groups will still be permitted. Millions will still flow into federal political campaigns.

    2. A viable option to limit campaign expenditures is through a public financing campaign law. Several states have adopted such laws and they have been successful–NY, Conn. and Az. are examples. These laws at the state level provide public funds to candidates and set limits on direct contributions and total campaign spending. But these laws MUST BE OPTIONAL for candidates. Our Constitution would prohibit mandatory public financing laws. Pushing for these laws is a realistic, appropriate activity. But the big money is at the federal level.

    3. A federal public financing campaign law for presidential campaigns already exists. President Obama in 2008 made news by becoming the first presidential candidate to reject public financing. He ran his campaign entirely on individual contributions. Both presidential candidates in the 2012 election are expected to opt out of public financing, raising the question of whether the public financing law should be abolished because of candidate disinterest. Ironically, presidential public financing was introduced in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandals.

    4. The limits imposed by law on direct contributions to federal candidates remain in force. There is no public or political sentiment to change them. President Obama is expected to raise more than 1 Billion Dollars for his reelection campaign through direct contributions.

    As we left for dinner, I suggested to my friend that–realistically–money will always dominate American politics in one form or another. He accused me of “being inside the Beltway too long.”


XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>