Sheldon Adelson: Surprise Campaign Finance Reformer

I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections” 

You might think this statement was made by Buddy Roemer, or a member of Occupy Wall Street. But you’d be wrong.

Sheldon Adelson – who with his wife contributed a campaign-saving $10 million dollars to Newt Gingrich – has revealed himself to be a campaign finance reformer in a recent Forbes profile.

This one man could be said to have had more of an influence on the Republican primaries than any individual, save the candidates themselves.  Yet he has come out and declared that wealthy people should not use their financial resources to exert outsized influence on elections (and, presumably, on influencing government afterwards).

Just after decrying the influence of wealth on elections, Adelson illustrates why it is so important that government enact reforms to fight the corrosive influence of money in politics.  Though he doesn’t think that wealth ought to buy influence on elections, Adelson says that “as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.  Because I know that guys like Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades.” As Andrew Rosenthal commented in the New York Times:

That’s a great explanation for why the government needs to regulate campaigns and, for that matter, a great explanation for why government regulation is necessary more generally.

Government needs to set rules to govern money in politics -- rules that protect democratic values and fight against democratic corruption -- and then everyone can play by them.

Adelson also criticized efforts by the wealthy to hide their financial involvement in politics.  He specifically called out those that “stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money” and explained “I have my own philosophy and I’m not ashamed of it.  I gave the money because there is no other legal way to do it. I don’t want to go through ten different corporations to hide my name. I’m proud of what I do and I’m not looking to escape recognition.”

Justice Scalia, not known as an ardent champion of much campaign finance regulation, would applaud this declaration. In his concurrence in 2010’s Doe v. Reed, he wrote:

Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.  For my part, I do not look forward to a society which . . . campaigns anonymously [ ] . . . hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.  This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

While wealth should not be deployed to dominate political speech and electoral outcomes, at least when it is done transparently we can hold the spender, and the candidate, accountable.

This is exactly what Ted Koppel tried to do when asking Newt Gingrich the question that is raised by these massive donations: “What do these multi-millionaires expect?” Newt tried to answer by saying that they want their candidate to win, but Koppel continued, “when you give someone five million bucks. . . there has to be a so-what at the end of it. So if you win, what does Adelson get out of it?”

In Forbes, Adelson ties his multi-million dollar donation to his views on U.S. domestic policy. Specifically, his fear that “the redistribution of wealth is the path to more socialism.” This view is in line with the finding, cited in the recent Demos and USPIRG report on Super PACs, that large donors are significantly more conservative than the general public on economic matters, and tend to favor tax cuts over anti-poverty spending.

The New York Times reported that more than 80 percent of the money collected by Super PACs comes from approximately two dozen individuals, couples, and companies. An editorial entitled “Donors with Agendas” details the business and ideological interests, with “clear policy agendas with the federal government”, of some of the biggest spenders, and notes that “their huge influence on individual candidates demonstrates the potential for corruption inherent in the super PAC era.”

When a candidate is ”so far in the pocket of one man,” it is no wonder that in two-thirds of all voters and three-quarters of independents say that big donors and secret money undermine democracy. The same poll found that eighty percent of American voters say there is too much money in politics and support reasonable limits on contributions and spending. While everyone has the right to their own opinions, the impact of their views should rest on the strength of their arguments, not the access and influence they can wield due to the size of their wallets.

Adelson is spending millions to support his ideological ally because he fears that continuing the current Administration means that “[i]t won’t be a socialist democracy because it won’t be a democracy." He’s right about one thing. If our politics and policies are determined by the richest few, then no matter how many elections are administered that is not a real democracy. Nor is it socialism. It is plutocracy.

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