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Hey Citizen, Can You Spare $1,000? How About $10 Million?

Adam Lioz
Blair Bowie

When was the last time you contributed $1,000 to a political candidate or cause?  For the majority of donors to Senate candidates, the answer is "very recently."

When was the last time you contributed $1,000 to a political candidate or cause?  If you’re like most people, the answer is “Never—if I have that kind of money it’s in the college savings account.”

Well, candidates for the U.S. Senate this election got nearly 64% of the money they raised from individuals in contributions of at least $1,000—from just four one-hundredths of one percent of the population.

Billion-Dollar Democracy, the latest Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of the role of money in the 2012 elections, reveals what most Americans already know: political power in America is concentrated in the hands of an elite fraction of the populace—threatening the very concept of government of, by, and for the people.

Running for federal office means spending your days and nights courting a very narrow set of very rich donors who have the power to fuel your campaign or turn off the lights. 

Add the post-Citizens United Super PACs to the equation and big money dominance gets even more extreme.  The top 32 Super PAC donors, contributing an average of nearly $10 million each, matched all of the money that both President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from small donors combined—that’s $313 million from at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 apiece.  

When just 32 super-rich donors can counter the voices of millions in the public square, we can’t say we live in a country of political equals.

Important academic research shows that all this spending buys something very important.  Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens studied the connections between wealth and political power in the U.S. in his recent book Affluence and Influence.  His conclusions are startling.  

Gilens writes that “under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on the policies which the government does or doesn’t adopt.”  He concludes that “[t]he concentration of political influence among Americans at the top of the income distribution is incompatible with the core democratic principle of political equality” and that “the patterns of responsiveness [he has uncovered] often correspond more closely to a plutocracy than to a democracy.”

The new Demos & U.S. PIRG report shows that the current big-money system doesn’t just serve wealthy donors over average citizens.  It also favors incumbents and secret spenders looking to avoid accountability.

More than 90% of incumbents won re-election in 2012, and incumbent representatives outraised major challengers by a whopping 443%.

And, of all the televisions ads about the presidential election that were sponsored by groups other than parties or candidates, well more than half the time voters would not be able to determine who funded the messages intended to influence their votes. 

The bottom line is that Americans who are wondering why it seems tougher to get ahead or even get a fair shake in today’s economy should look to big money politics for answers.  When a tiny group of wealthy donors fuels political campaigns, they get to set the agenda in Washington, and the rest of us are left to argue over that agenda.

The outsized role of money in our elections is a dark cloud over our democracy—but there is a silver lining.  Not since Watergate has there been so much energy behind finally building a democracy in which the strength of a citizen’s voice does not depend upon the size of her wallet.  

Our report recommends several concrete steps, including amending the constitution and empowering average citizens by matching small contributions with public funds.  And there are exciting opportunities for victories this year, such as passing a small donor matching system in New York State and pushing the SEC to require public companies to disclose political spending. 

Now is the time to push our leaders in Washington and across the country to take action to build a small donor democracy.