Big Money Dominance: It Will Get Worse -- Much Worse -- Unless We Stop It

A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building
A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building

Eighty-four percent of Americans think money has too much influence in U.S. politics.

Why is there such overwhelming consensus on this point?

Because it reflects a common-sense understanding of how our elections run, and why the government fails to adopt available solutions to our biggest problems -- even when those solutions have overwhelming support. (Examples:raising the minimum wage; adopting stronger environmental standards, including to avert catastrophic climate change; empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices ; breaking up the big banks; expanding Social Security benefits ; ending corporate trade deals like NAFTA and the TransPacific Partnership; and on and on.)

But here's the thing: Big Money is poised to tighten its grip over elections and politics far more than it already has.

Can things actually get worse, you ask?

You bet.

Giant corporations and the super-rich exerted far too much influence over politics before the 2010 travesty Citizens United. At the time the Supreme Court handed down that decision, many questioned whether things could get worse. They could, and they did.

Since Citizens United, we have seen more money spent on elections, a small number of super-rich individuals and corporations come to dominate election spending, a huge increase in outside spending, and a dramatic jump in secret spending, allocated overwhelmingly to negative, attack ads.

Citizens United and a follow-on decision known as Speech Now, as well as non-enforcement of existing laws and rules by the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service helped make this possible. But it wasn't just the change in the law that mattered. It was the change in the culture. Citizens United signified that we were entering the Wild West period of campaign spending. The restraints that the super-rich and corporations previously imposed on themselves were dramatically loosened. And so too could political operatives push the bounds (e.g., by engaging in wink-and-nod coordination between super PACs and candidate campaigns).

And here's why things can -- and are on course to -- get worse: Each post-Citizens United election cycle features new "innovations," and Big Money donors are willing to do more and more. The signal feature of this election cycle - not yet evident but it will be: the Koch brother network pledge to spend $889 million on federal elections and the construction by the Kochs of an electoral machine that is comparable in scale and scope to either of the major national political parties.

But even that outrageous sum -- $889 million -- only gives a taste of what might happen in the future. That's because of two factors: First, skyrocketing wealth and income inequality means that a small number of super-rich people can make political donations like you and I can throw around Monopoly money. Second, the Citizens United authorization of unlimited corporate spending means entities that exist to aggregate wealth -- and generate sums vastly exceeding what any individual controls -- can dominate elections, if they choose. So far, corporate spending on elections, as best can be determined, has been relatively low; but there's good reason to think self-imposed restraints on spending will progressively deteriorate, as has steadily been the case since Citizens United.

Consider the relative cost of elections and the relative wealth and income of the super-rich and giant corporations.

Cost of 2012 federal elections: $6.3 billion.

Projected cost of 2016 federal elections: $10 billion.

Total net worth of the Forbes 400 richest people in 2015: $2.34 trillion.

2015 profits -- profits, not revenue! -- of Fortune 500 companies: $945 billion

You get the picture.

So, Americans reasonably think Big Money has too much influence in elections and politics. But if nothing is done, it's likely to get worse.

To this, there's only one answer: Do something.

Here's one thing: Thousands of Americans will descend on Washington, D.C. forthe Democracy Awakening mobilization April 16-18. Sign up, and join Democracy Spring protests the week before, and then a weekend of teach-ins, music, a Sunday, April 17 march and rally at the U.S. Capitol, lobbying and nonviolent civil disobedience.