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“Our vision for American democracy should be a nation in which all people, regardless of their income, can participate in the political process, can run for office without begging for contributions from the wealthy and the powerful.” Bernie Sanders
I recently heard a candidate for the House of Representatives speak about the money chase to run for elected office. She had been told she had to raise at least $1 million to be a “viable” candidate. In order to get any financial assistance from her party, she had to prove her ability to raise large amounts of money. Even the so called “progressive” political organizations created to help support women candidates required this proof before providing any help. Campaign consultants said she would need to spend 30 plus hours per week on the phone soliciting contributions.
This is the reality of our elections. It isn’t about the candidate’s position on important issues. It’s not about their political philosophy or their vision for the country. It is not about addressing the pressing problems people face everyday. We don’t have elections. We have fund raising marathons.
The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive or conservative issue. Mike Huckabee. the former Republican Governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate, has said,
“Politics has become unbelievably and unfortunately way too much about how much money is involved rather than what kind of ideas are involved.”
President Jimmy Carter says unlimited money in politics,
“...violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now, it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations [and getting elected]... So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
If you think calling campaign contributions “bribes” is excessive rhetoric, listen to Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education and major contributor to conservative causes (writing in 1997):
“My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party … I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence...Now, I simply concede the point...We expect a return on our investment...” (emphasis added).
This money chase is the root of most problems with the electoral process. It discourages good candidates from running, promotes cynicism, and reduces public participation in politics. It corrupts politicians, gives power to special interests, and turns our nominal democracy into a de facto plutocracy.
Many elected officials recognize this and, in fact, hate the money raising process. Joe Biden, in 1974 when he was a Senator from Delaware, talked about fund raising:
“Politics is a damn expensive business. I had one hell of a time trying to raise money as a candidate... It is the most degrading thing in the world to go out with your hat in your hand and beg for money...”
According to the Washington Post, the 2016 presidential and congressional elections cost $6.5 billion. The presidential contest including the primaries cost $2.4 billion including spending by campaigns, party committees and outside sources. The Post said the result was “... a 596-day political contest that most of us were ‘disgusted’ by well before it was over.”
The high cost of elections does benefit some politicians, many of whom become wealthy during their time in office. It also benefits the consultants, advisers, advertisers, pundits, and TV companies who suck up all those billions. We have a massive “campaign industrial complex.”
None of this happens in other democratic countries which have strict limits on the length of election campaigning and campaign spending. In Britain political parties can only spend $29.5 million in the year before an election. They ban televised campaign ads. In Canada a candidate for Parliament spends an average of $12,000 to $90,000. In 2016, American candidates for the U.S. House spent about $500,000 and Senate candidates spent around $1.5 million.
Obviously we need campaign finance reform and limits on the length of campaigns. Complete public financing of elections would be good. We need to overturn the Citizens Untied decision that fuels much of this outrageous spending. These reforms have been debated for decades. Passing reforms is not likely to happen. But there are things people can do right now to reduce the impact of big money in politics. We may not have the power to change the system, but we are not powerless.
People can do things to support good candidates. You can volunteer to help the campaign. You can put up yard signs, use bumper stickers and social media to influence other people. You can talk with your friends, neighbors, and relatives about candidates and issues. Discussing politics CAN be done respectfully in polite company! And it can have an impact.
People can also contribute to campaigns. Historically only 10% of Americans have ever given a contribution to any candidate’s campaign, political party, or political action committee. The ones who gave contributions over $200 were less than 1%. The big donors are only a small fraction of this one percent but they gave half of the money raised. But many hands make light work. Many small donations can add up. The Bernie Sanders campaign is an example. Small dollar donors allowed Bernie to raise more money in the primary race than Hillary Clinton. The average Bernie donor gave a total of $96.
Now is the time to be supporting candidates who will actually represent ordinary people. Now is the time to make that small contribution so good candidates can have a chance to compete in the money chase.