The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elections vs. auctions: Yet another way in which there’s too much money in politics


A few years ago, I attended a conference on retirement income security where I met a young Illinois state senator named Daniel Biss. Since then, we’ve occasionally talked about policy ideas, typically regarding ideas to help those on the left-behind side of the inequality divide.

So, it was with some interest that I noted Biss was making a run for governor of Illinois, one of several Democrats running to unseat Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). For those unfamiliar with Illinois politics, which looks discomfortingly close to that in Washington, Rauner is an unpopular governor and former businessman who spent millions of his own money to get elected and plans to do so again. He’s already contributed more than $50 million to his campaign.

He’s not the only politician in the race with bottomless pockets. Democrat challenger J.B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt fortune, has bankrolled his primary run to the tune of $35 million so far.

All of which has led Biss, one of Pritzker’s primary opponents, to query whether the state is engaged in “an auction or an election.”

It’s a fair question, one to which I’ve often alluded to as well, in the following context. About 40 percent of the nation’s wealth is held by the top 1 percent of households, about twice the share that prevailed 35 years ago. And in our increasingly monetized political system, this intense wealth concentration interacts with politics in ways that render our politics increasingly less representative of those on the wrong side of the inequality divide, which is most of us.

To be clear, the size of their bankroll should neither disqualify nor recommend any given candidate: Just because you’re rich, doesn’t mean you’re buying an election to further enrich yourself or your heirs, though a quick look at Trump’s tax plan, which bigly rewards him and his progeny, isn’t exactly comforting in this regard. Tom Steyer, a California billionaire, is considering a run for the Senate to further his cause of protecting the environment. Also, because they can self-finance, wealthy candidates can legitimately claim not to be beholden to interest groups and rich donors (billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg comes to mind). But, if needed, they can handily raise funds from the donor class within which they dwell and whose agenda they tend to share, as has Rauner, to the tune of about $20 million so far.

Moreover, while recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have created even more avenues through which money can infect politics in America, I suspect we’ll no sooner stop the wealthy from financing their elections than from buying another polo pony (or therapy sessions for an unhappy polo pony).

Public financing of elections can serve as a counterbalance, and Biss introduced a bill in Illinois to create a small donor matching system of public financing designed to elevate the voices of ordinary voters (it passed the Illinois Senate, but languishes in the House). This system, already in effect in New York City, doesn’t just help candidates with moderate incomes get and stay in races against billionaires. Because it matches small-donor contributions, it also forces candidates who tap public financing to extensively interact with regular folks.

Still, there’s something bigger going wrong here, something you can see every day if you’re paying even scant attention to current events.

Political scientists, such as Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, have shown that when their views and preferences diverge, as is often the case these days, politics and policy respond almost exclusively to the affluent. I know: Who’d a thunk it, especially with the highly unpopular tax cut as Exhibit A? But as the Trump era unfolds, this dynamic is unfolding with frightening speed.

Consider the Republicans’ attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which cut taxes for the rich and health coverage for the poor, and lost by one measly vote in the Senate. Once this beast of a tax cut is fully phased in, it raises taxes on families with incomes below $75,000 to help pay for tax cuts for the top 1 percent, whose average income is about $3.5 million. According to numerous accounts, a few months back, when the tax writers first shared their plan with House Republicans, the announcement that they planned to repeal the estate tax got a standing ovation. Yet, this tax hits only the top 0.2 percent of the richest estates.

It’s an anecdote that shows just how unrepresentative politics has become. But to what extent is this cancer in our politics a function of elections as auctions, to use Biss’s framing? If fewer super-rich candidates ran, would the political representation of the less-advantaged increase?

Krystal Ball, the president of the People’s House Project (an organization dedicated to electing people more representative of those in their districts), thinks so, and she’s not just talking about Republicans. I thought she introduced a persuasive thought experiment:

If someone assembled an all-male committee to make decisions on women’s health, Democrats would immediately howl that this was unacceptable. If anyone formed an all-white committee to make decisions on racial justice, the party would rightly scorn it. But somehow, it hasn’t occurred to Democrats that as we need ethnic and gender diversity, we need economic diversity as well.

Again, I’m not sure how big a difference it would make if we elected more politicians who grew up depending on paychecks as opposed to stock portfolios. Certainly, the need to constantly schmooze with wealthy donors wouldn’t disappear; big money will always find a way to influence politics, especially here in the United States. But it seems axiomatic that people who’ve struggled to hold their place in the middle class, who’ve been hurt by globalization, who grew up in neighborhoods suffering from systemic underinvestment, will have a deeper, more personal understanding of the need for policy interventions to push back on these problems.

To the extent that such candidates are crowded out of the electoral process by the wealthy, our political system is, by definition, less representative. Economic diversity requires electoral diversity, and that means we need more elections and fewer auctions.