Big Money in Politics Threatens the Very Foundation of Democracy.
Money Lies at the Core of Representational Inequality.
The central premise of a democracy is the shared vision of its people. Democracies are based on the conjecture of equality. Private money is causing a fundamental fracture in that very premise, provoking us to change our values and ambitions.
“Although it’s important to protect minority interests from the tyranny of the majority, the problem we face today is the tyranny of the minority.” explains Ganesh Sitaraman in an essay titled “Achieving Democracy” in a book named Democracy Unchained.
When money is denounced as the worst evil of democracy, then what is it that stops our politicians from parting with the same. Political reforms pertaining to lobbying, campaign financing, and other corporate interventions are too slow; therefore, it's easy for corporations to lobby without a hitch. It’s antagonistic to democracy and drains it of its essence. After all, corporations are neither representatives of people, nor are they benevolent to them. Money instead makes the ‘representation deficit’ in politics starker and increasingly tricky for inequality to leave the system. Is this the result of severe distortions in our system that our democracies are captured by the wealthiest?
Political representation is a concept based on ‘one person, one vote.’ It has been misinterpreted for all practical purposes as ‘one money one vote’ or ‘more money more vote.’ The monetary push comes in many forms. They buy opinions by buying media houses; they buy politicians by funding election campaigns; they buy policies by lobbying at the government and other powerful institutions. The preferences of people with money take precedence most of the time.
In Bernie Sander’s words, “To restore our one person, one vote democracy, Congress must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and move toward public funding of elections.”
Though what Bernie said makes a lot of sense, the point is a constitutional amendment will take a considerable amount of time, if and when that happens. In the meantime, what do we do of the polity infiltrated with private money? Encourage small donors to participate and give out funds through tax rebate schemes. The catch is not only to decrease the gap between funds proceeding from the wealthy and average people but also to reduce tax credits that the wealthy get on their funding and what’s handed over to others. Since the latter will demotivate the influential from giving out funds as one of the obscured intentions behind their massive pretentious funding and philanthropy is to save tax—the obvious being influencing policy. The overall burden of enormous tax savings made by the rich falls on the shoulders of the public. Like for example, France expended 29 million Euros on tax allowances. It was spent on 10% of the wealthiest donors to party funding. Whereas on the rest 50% of the least well-off people French government spent just as much as it did on .01% of the richest as tax allowance. This clearly shows how distorted our democracies have become.
How do we break off from this humiliating system? How do we decrease the value attached to people’s wealth in politics in the form of philanthropy or donation from elitists? In a political system motivated by money, general interest and the common good of people get displaced by particular interest of few most influential. It doesn’t take long for money to ruin the health of democracy by turning itself into a polity of a few and an economy of fewer. In the end, what remains is only the façade of democracy. And we are moving closer to that.
Parties shall act as enablers to people — enablers of equal opportunity to express their will and debate their issues. They, on the contrary, attach political weight to the wealth of the rich and influential. What we need for democracy to function well is democracy funded with public money. We have to keep unreasonable and dominant private money out of it.
Campaign finance reforms are needed on an urgent basis to realize the true potential of the collective power of small donors. This inclination of democracy towards the richest does no good to the ordinary people. People who fund democracies with huge private funds rarely do it for the improvement of public goods services. All they want is quick political favors for their already flourishing businesses.
There is a dire necessity of working towards making our world a more equitable place. We cannot be dependent on donations and subsidies for eternity, which means that we first need to understand what’s exactly being compromised and who is getting what in exchange? How many powerful private interests are involved in the exchange, for if the number is too small, it denotes concentration, which means lobbyists have an even higher value. It makes them even more indispensable. Popular mobilizations, on the other hand, make it plausible to raise money through ordinary people., which is a more democratic way to fund elections. It also makes left parties more competent in the system where businesses incline mostly towards conservatives.
Julia Cage observes, in her book The Price of Democracy, that “Democrats are well equipped to raise small sums, especially since their ActBlue platform (a nonprofit organization founded in 2004) really took off in 2018, this organization netted more than $2.9 billion for Democratic candidates. And between January 2017 and September 2018 alone, it raised nearly $564 million, or approximately 55% of all individual contributions to Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Is this the new way of doing politics?”
In 2020 Democrats have benefitted quite a lot from the increase in small donations. It was done mostly through ActBlue — a tech platform that connects small donors to democratic causes and, therefore, helps people match their offerings with something they care about.
'Fundraging' Fuels Democratic Money Advantage Over GOP In Most Races
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Though these small signs of progress are appreciable, let’s remain mindful that neither democrats nor republicans have sufficiently worked on the issue of inequality. They have been more or less the two sides of the same coin regarding economic matters. Prohibition of these practices won’t lead to the desired results until there also exists economic equality in society. As President Roosevelt also pointed out, “there can be no political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”
Absence of which will result in money finding its way through political corridors, no matter what regulation is in place. The subjugation of the poor by the rich can only be mitigated by achieving economic parity where no person or corporation is too weighty to command the government or people.
The United States doesn’t fare well on any of the above criteria:
1. Its income inequality has risen in the last decades. Its top 1% takes 15% of its national income.
2. Corporations have become way too powerful, and markets are becoming increasingly concentrated, with just a few firms ruling over the entire market, hence holding substantial market shares.
Along with antitrust laws to break the big corporations into smaller parts and regulations to ban practices such as lobbying, campaign funding, etc., we also need to address economic inequality at all levels. One way to achieve this is to follow some of the most conventional solutions like increasing the minimum wage of labor, levying more taxes on the rich, and investing more in public goods.
Failure to stop private interests from involving themselves in matters of politics can produce other grievous problems like grafting, favoritism, or other prejudices. Grafting is choosing to act in favor of interests other than the broad public interest. Other interests could be personal or returning a favor to someone. Anything from granting a contract to a less competitive firm or selecting inferior material for a project to merit-less hiring, all of it can be categorized as a problem aroused from unnecessary private interference. It increases corporate power and gives them leverage over commoners; it makes it easy for them to influence policy.
Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, in their article, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, found that “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
I want to wrap up with the appropriate words of Justice Stephen Breyer in disagreement with Justice John Robert in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Stephen Breyer says, “when enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many.”
 Citizens United is a ruling by Supreme Court that held that corporate funding from donors and other groups could not be restricted. It inclined American democracy even further towards the rich.
 Aída Chávez, “Small-Dollar Donors Are Playing a Growing Role in Congressional Campaigns,” The intercept. March 6, 2019, theintercept.com/2019/03/06/house-democrats-small-dollar-donations.
 Cagé Julia, and Patrick Camiller. The Price of Democracy: How Money Shapes Politics and What to Do about It. Harvard University Press, 2020.
 Stephen Breyer, “Dissent, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” Supreme Court Syllabus, April 2, 2014, www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-536_elpf.pdf
Brown, Heath A. 2016. Pay-to-play politics: how money defines the American democracy.
Tyler, George R. 2018. Billionaire democracy the hijacking of the American political system.