It is easy to dismiss as overblown the concern about the outsize role of ultra-rich donors in the American political scene. Exhibit 1: Jeb Bush. Bush’s $100 million in super PAC fundraising was supposed to be part of a shock-and-awe campaign that would scare away competitors and give him a smooth path to the Republican presidential nomination. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Bush has been polling toward the bottom in the Republican race despite the war chest, and Donald Trump, who has spent little on his campaign despite his billionaire status, has been on top.
“Hurrah for Citizens United ,” Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote in one representative piece. He asserted that worries about the 2010 Supreme Court ruling have been proved wrong. “Expectations that big money would float the best-financed candidate directly to the White House have yet to materialize this campaign season.”
But this overly simplistic analysis misses the key role of money in contemporary American politics. In spite of the rhetoric of some campaign reformers, money doesn’t buy elections. Instead, it increases the odds of electoral victory and of getting one’s way on policies, tax breaks and government contracts. And the presidential race is the place we are least likely to see money’s effects. Looking to Congress and the states, though, we can see that the era of big money unleashed by the Supreme Court is hurtling us toward a plutocracy in which the people with the greatest economic power can wield great political power through campaign donations and lobbying.
Bush is simply the latest in a long line of politicians whose candidacies demonstrate that all the money in the world won’t make people buy a bad product. Consider former eBay executive Meg Whitman, who spent $140 million in her losing bid to beat Jerry Brown in the California governor’s race in 2010. The more she spent, the less voters liked her. Or take Dave Brat, the barely known Virginia college professor who spent less on his successful Republican primary challenge to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor than Cantor’s campaign spent on meals at steakhouses. There’s no easy correlation between money spent on politics and electoral outcomes.
Money, nonetheless, does matter to elections. Just 158 out of 120 million American families have donated nearly half the money that’s been spent on the 2016 presidential contest. Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie and other candidates remain viable only because of super-wealthy donors. Without the new super PACs, they couldn’t have withstood such dismal poll numbers. The same was true in 2012. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson ’s $20 million contribution to a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich kept Gingrich in the race and gave voters a second and third and fourth look at the candidate.
And yet a single donor’s influence in presidential contests is tempered by other factors. With billions of dollars sloshing around on all sides, so much free media attention (especially to outlandish candidacies like Trump’s) and widespread public interest, mega-donors are only one part of a larger picture.
Money can matter more to the outcomes of congressional and state races because of relative scale. Millions of dollars spent in these contests can swamp the competition and help swing close elections, especially by influencing low-information voters. Merely the threat of such spending gets the attention of candidates, who worry about the next super PAC to line up against them.
Even more significant, big money skews public policy in the direction of the wealthiest donors. In Illinois, a handful of the super-rich, including hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, played a key role in getting Republican Bruce Rauner elected governor with an agenda to slash government spending, impose term limits and weaken employee unions. Hedge funds have used campaign money and lobbying to block a potential bankruptcy declaration by Puerto Rico that could help its people but hurt bondholders’ interests.
We’re supposed to be in a post-earmark era, yet Congress’s recent must-pass omnibus bill to fund the government was full of special interest deals backed by big spenders. The New York Times reported that “as congressional leaders were hastily braiding together a tax and spending bill of more than 2,000 pages, lobbyists swooped in to add 54 words that temporarily preserved a loophole sought by the hotel, restaurant and gambling industries, along with billionaire Wall Street investors, that allowed them to put real estate in trusts and avoid taxes.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid supported the language, and the company of one of Reid’s top donors admitted to being among those “involved in the discussions with congressional staff members.”
This is how money influences American politics these days. In the wake of Citizens United, donors can spend ever greater sums in ever closer coordination with their supported candidates. Loose campaign finance rules grease the wheels for industry lobbyists to work in the shadows, securing big private benefits in bills the public scarcely pays attention to. The threat of big money scares politicians away from taking positions against the donor class.
The legacy of Citizens United is not about the ultra-wealthy simply buying elections or about politicians on the take. Money can’t buy you Jeb. Instead, we face a subtler but equally pernicious rise of a plutocratic class capturing private benefits for personal gain.
Greg Sargent reviews Richard L. Hasen’s ‘Plutocrats United.’
Trevor Potter: The Supreme Court needs to get smarter about politics