Donald Trump has gotten attention recently for his candor about our broken money in politics system. Trump claims he is so rich that he can’t be bought, and has suggested that other candidates are “puppets” for billionaire donors. As Jon Stewart joked on one of his last episodes of The Daily Show, Trump is coloring outside the lines since “people like him are supposed to buy the candidates, not be them! In our system of government, one branch has the money and the other branch does what the one branch with the money tells them to do. He’s screwing the whole pooch!”
Trump is not the only one to express disdain for a system that gives so much power to super-rich donors. The unfolding 2016 presidential primary has been described as the Billionaire’s Primary, as candidates who can’t bankroll their own campaigns hustle for financial backing from a small pool of super-rich donors. As Doyle McManus writes,
The most important players aren’t the candidates; they’re the mega-donors…this year, we’re reaching new lows: The Republican race has devolved into a battle among headstrong billionaires, each with a pet candidate…There’s something grotesque about a process that requires serious politicians to hover anxiously around a few donors who can make or break a campaign at whim.
The Billionaire’s Primary might be particularly grotesque this election cycle. But our broken campaign finance system has long meant that a “wealth primary” takes place before the actual election, determining which candidates run in the first place.
In the 1990s, Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz described how the exorbitant costs of running an effective campaign “freeze out poorer candidates.” The huge sums of money needed
mean that candidates must have either great personal wealth or a political program compatible with the interests of those who do. Why? It is simply not possible to run a House or Senate campaign on the force of small contributions from fellow citizens who are not rich.
Since the 1990s, campaign costs have climbed to even more exorbitant levels. In 2014, the median winning House candidate spent over $1.1 million; the median winning Senate candidate spent over $9 million. As campaign costs have grown, so have the ways in which wealthy donors can funnel money into elections. Wealthy donors can now give $2,700 to a single candidate per election, or $5,400 per election cycle ($10,800 for a couple)—well more than the vast majority of us can afford to spend on politics. And since Citizens United, wealthy donors have funneled millions of dollars into Super PACs and other organizations that can spend unlimited amounts to back their pet candidates.
The Sunlight Foundation has described the wealthy donor class as the “political 1% of the 1%.” In the 2012 election, “[n]ot a single member of the House or Senate elected last year won without financial assistance from this group. Money from the nation’s 31,385 biggest givers found its way into the coffers of every successful congressional candidate.” Thus far in the 2016 presidential race, the “67 biggest donors, each of whom gave $1 million or more, donated more than three times as much as the 508,000 smallest donors combined.”
Under a system that allows the super-rich to translate their economic power directly into political might, the donor class has also become a Gatekeeper Class, “determining which types of aspiring public servants are able to get on the playing field in a meaningful way.” Candidates who are personally connected to the Gatekeeper Class or who share its policy preferences are filtered in, while everyone else is filtered out.
It is easier for candidates with personal connections to the wealthy Gatekeeper Class to raise large amounts of money than candidates whose personal networks are comprised of the 99%. Kelly Westlund, an aspiring House candidate, recounted the following story:
When I went to the Democratic party and told them I wanted to jump in, their representative asked me if I could raise a quarter of a million dollars in three weeks. I laughed at him and said, "No have you met Northern Wisconsin?" I am a young working class person and most of my network is waitresses and teachers and firefighters and police officers. I don’t have a network of millionaires and billionaires that I can call… When I said I couldn’t raise a quarter million in three weeks, his response was, "Then, you’re not viable." I knew the system was broken but it was so much worse than I could have imagined.
As Bonifaz and Raskin described, this “effective exclusion of candidates lacking personal or political access to wealth leaves poorer citizens without a natural rallying point in the electoral process.”
Our system also filters in candidates who share the policy preferences of the wealthy Gatekeeper Class. Research indicates that the affluent have very different policy priorities than the rest of us, especially when it comes to the economy. To obtain their financial support, candidates shade their policy positions to be more compatible with those of the Gatekeeper Class.
In sum, “[q]ualified, credible candidates who either lack access to networks of large donors or fail to shade their positions in the proper direction are filtered out of the system, dropping out of races, deciding not to run in the first place, or losing primary elections.”
The candidates who make it through the economic gauntlet and are left sitting at the table to make policy decisions for our country have largely been filtered by the Gatekeeper Class. But the people who make up the Gatekeeper Class are not reflective of America. Not only are they really rich, but they’re also a lot whiter than America as a whole. It matters that our elected officials are filtered by this unreflective group of people. In her article Race, Presidential Politics, and the Challenge of Creating a Democracy For All of Us, Rahna Epting points out that even as the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing Americans to face the racism that is rampant in our society, “too few of our elected officials and candidates are talking about race, too few are championing an awakening of our humanity, too few are willing to take on the systemic challenges of our country…” She goes on to say:
Nationwide, the top contributing zip codes to presidential campaigns are wealthier and whiter. Donors from these areas are the one percent of the one percent who, due ot the way political campaigns are funded today, have more voice and power than the rest of us in our political system…
No wonder we’re not seeing the outrage, the action, the leadership. It’s because the folks who live in the area around Central Park in Manhattan, although they may have empathy they don’t have the same outrage because it’s not their families, their brother, their sister, their cousin who is impacted by racial injustice.
In this era of crushing racial and economic injustice, we need a campaign finance system that allows everyone an equal chance to sit at the table as policymakers. Candidates should be filtered by all Americans, not just by the Gatekeeper Class.