A Social Justice Case for Campaign Finance Reform

In the Jim Crow South, before blacks had their turn to vote, states often held a white primary -- so that even in districts where blacks were the majority, black political priorities were nullified and black voters were subjected to picking from a crop of 'general election' candidates preselected by the white population.
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A court gavel on 100 bills - legal concept
A court gavel on 100 bills - legal concept


In the Jim Crow South, before blacks had their turn to vote, states often held a white primary -- so that even in districts where blacks were the majority, black political priorities were nullified and black voters were subjected to picking from a crop of 'general election' candidates preselected by the white population.

Today, the democratic process is no longer skewed by white primaries. Instead, before general elections, before even primary voting begins, there is a fundraising primary that takes place among the donor class and wielders of corporate PACs, in which they determine those who will be given the lionshare of campaign funds. When the average price of winning or holding on to a six-year term in the U.S. Senate averages $10,476,451, as in the 2012 election cycle, these 'first-round' pick candidates, backed by the donor class, prove immensely hard to beat. In 2014 Congress had an 11 percent approval rating but a 96 percent incumbent reelection rate.

Currently, the number one determinant of whether a person is a viable candidate for office in the United States is their fundraising capability. With the exception of superstar populists like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (who raise extraordinary amounts of grassroots funds), fundraising capability is inextricably connected to whether proposed policy platforms are favored by donor bases, which regardless of party, are exclusively made up of the nation's wealthiest 1 percent, which is 82 percent white.

Their political investment pays off. 91 percent of the time the congressional candidate who raises more money wins the election. And as the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization Maplight reveals through its bill-by-bill tracking, the yeas and nays of congressional votes tend to correlate with the level of campaign contributions a moneyed-interest has given.

However, the influence of affluence doesn't end at the congressional level. Oval Office hopefuls, quite literally, flock to mega-donors. Sheldon Adelson is a conservative billionaire casino mogul and Politico reported earlier this year: "Before Iowa and New Hampshire, GOP candidates are competing in the Sheldon Adelson primary, and some will travel to his posh Venetian hotel in Las Vegas this weekend in hopes of winning it."

At this juncture in the 2016 presidential election, out of the estimated 120 million households in the United States just 158 families have provided about half of the money so far. 138 of them support Republican candidates. And as the New York Times details, the heads of these households are "overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters." That rising 'nation-remaking' political coalition is often contrasted with lower-to-middle income whites in electoral politics, but on campaign finance these voter blocs stand in solidarity.

In fact, a CBS News poll revealed 85 percent of Americans believe 'the political money system needs fundamental changes or a complete rebuild.' But campaign finance reform did not poll above 1 percent on "most important issues facing the U.S." That's probably because the top two polling problems -- jobs and the economy -- have much more direct manifestations. A working-class single mom's problem today is putting food on the table tonight. Regulating the political contributions of millionaires next year, even if she think it's corrupting, understandably doesn't feel as pressing.

But when the empirical data unearthed in a 2014 Princeton study suggests that "the public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts" an inquiry into whether she is truly being represented is a valid investigation. The study concluded: "In the United States, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose."

Campaign finance reform is a school of thought that argues for de-concentrating, rearranging, or altogether eradicating the involvement of 'big' corporate and private money in politics. It's goals are to ensure that those in public office are public servants in truth, that democracy is truly representative, and that political discourse is honestly motivated.

Leading campaign finance reform advocate Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, who ended his quixotic long-shot bid for president on November 2, ran with 'fixing democracy first' as his central tenet. But despite fundraising well over a million dollars the former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia struggled to gain traction and visibility. Lessig dropping out can be attributed in large part to vaguely conspiratorial maneuvering by the DNC who allegedly didn't cooperate with Lessig's team or consistently respond to their correspondence. But more generally, Lessig simply did not have enough popular support to independently get his campaign off the ground.

The question for campaign finance reformers going forward is whether they can sell the issue -- and its wonky, distant, elitist-sounding name -- as a matter of social justice intrinsic to equality of citizenship, then turn it into a 'ballot box' issue.

The political establishment would be deeply impacted if citizens deeply committed to social justice -- who count it among their goals to uplift the disempowered and diminish white elitism in all its crony capitalistic supremacist forms -- promoted campaign finance reform to the forefront of their rallying calls.

President Obama drove that home in the 2008 Democratic primary when he was the 'hope and change' candidate with whom the left fell in love: "If we do not change our politics -- if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works -- then the problems we've been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come." His words proved prophetic throughout his two terms as the financial power of the status quo and K street customarily beat back his initially ambitious liberal agenda.

The left is currently quarreling over how to get to their promise land, but few are acknowledging that the car, the plane, and the train each faction propose to take all have no fuel -- people power is presently outmatched by the purchasing power of political dollars.

Few, if any, of the ambitious solutions now offered by left-leaning activists or Democratic presidential candidates to address the pressing problems of our times (economic justice/inequality, criminal justice, climate change, etc.) will be met with a genuinely inclusive debate based on the merits of ideas, the popularity of principles, or the human cost of inaction. Not as long as the opinion of the economic elite and the political war chest of an industry backing, or opposing, a bill are the foremost indicators of a policy proposal's fate.

Or expressed in plainer English: if politics is being reduced to a monetary arms race, then the oppressed ain't ever gonna win it.


Whether it's Wu-Tang belting out C.R.E.A.M. Cash Rules Everything Around Me (1993) or Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987) reminding us that "what's worth doing is worth doing for money," Americans understand that "money talks" as the old adage goes. And whether it comes from a place of greed or a need to survive, money motivates nearly every move Americans make.

Yet, a notable disconnect from this concept has taken hold in American campaign finance law - the regulations conducting how elections are funded and operated. According to what's currently on the books, money doesn't 'talk' -- money is rather political speech and thus is protected by the First Amendment from any limitation. And so those limits previously in place, dating back to the post-Watergate era, have been quickly evaporating and the money, often anonymously given, has been skyrocketing.

Proponents of even further relaxing rules on money in politics argue that there is no corruption, nor any appearance of corruption, at play when corporations have no restrictions on their contributions to political races (as is now completely legal due to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision) or when wealthy individuals are granted a similar license (thanks to the Supreme Court's 2013 McCutcheon decision).

Political corruption is narrowly defined by the Supreme Court as quid pro quo - an explicit specified bribe for an explicit specified favor. But in order to maintain the structural integrity of the republic, as framers like Madison imagined it, and to improve upon socioeconomic justice within the republic, as activists demand of it, the interpretation of political corruption must be expanded to promote the general welfare. Since a broader interpretation is not likely to be applied by the high court anytime soon, reducing the influence of money in politics is left to the people's representatives, who can choose to legislate with the prospect of systemic corruption in mind.

Madison wrote a candid defense in Federalist #57 The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation:

Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.

The findings of the data analyses conducted in the recent Princeton study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, are synthesized with this sobering deduction:

It is simply not the case that a host of diverse, broadly-based interest groups take policy stands--and bring about actual policies--that reflect what the general public wants. Interest groups as a whole do not seek the same policies as average citizens do ... Relatively few mass-based interest groups are active, they do not (in the aggregate) represent the public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups--whose stands tend to be negatively related to the preferences of average citizens. These business groups are far more numerous and active; they spend much more money; and they tend to get their way.

Billionaires Charles and David Koch have inspired the ire of many top Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) with the political actions of Koch Industries, a multinational with subsidiaries in everything from oil to high finance which has given 94 percent of its money to Republicans. The Kochs plan to organize, along with other conservative moguls, a $250 million dollar effort this upcoming election cycle. When asked in an exclusive interview with former Republican Congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough whether they are "buying influence" Chairman Charles Koch responded: "Yes, I expect something in return - I expect the government to end this corporate welfare."

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled Why Koch Industries is Speaking Out Charles Koch wrote: "Because of our activism, we've been vilified by various groups. Despite this criticism, we're determined to keep contributing..." The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics documents that 39 out of 47 Koch Industries lobbyists in 2013-2014 previously held government jobs and that the top issues lobbied were taxes and energy.

Name any reform issue on the liberal wishlist and a lobbying complex -- backed by the olive branch and arrows of electoral expenditures -- can be named that will ensure it hasn't got a shot at passage (outside of a watered-down bill populists will likely label a palliative) here are a few examples.


Radical Prison Reform

Senator Bernie Sanders, in his typical direct manner, declared in a Huffington Post piece his intention to abolish for-profit prisons if elected president. He condemned the prison industry as both discriminatory and corrosive to the political process.

According to the Washington Post, the two largest private prisons "have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts" - efforts which include those in the circle of Sanders' opponent, Hillary Clinton. One of Clinton's major bundlers is a registered lobbyist for Geo Group. The Clinton camp would argue this hasn't affected her criminal justice platform. Sanders readily argues that for-profit prisons' political expenditures translate into policy influence:

It's been money well spent for the prison corporations. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of for-profit prisons in this country has increased by 1,600 percent. There are now 130 private prisons in this country, with a total of 157,000 beds. Through organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the prison industry has promoted state laws that increase incarceration rates for nonviolent offenses.

A damning report at Demos, a left-leaning thinktank, backs Sanders's claims. But as the democratic socialist has mentioned himself on the debate stage, even if he is elected can his supporters realistically expect to politically dismantle the system before first dismantling its apparatus for political power?

Climate Change

Another issue liberals champion is facing climate change, and for good reason. Looking at the big picture - the viability of our continued successful existence as a species - this is the biggest conundrum facing humans in the 21st century. However, the energy lobbies, who out of clear self-interest are diametrically opposed to realigning U.S. energy priorities and expanding investment in alternatives, were armed with $500 million dollars in lobbying and electoral expenditures when they prevented a young Obama administration, counterarmed with a supermajority in both houses of Congress, from passing a climate change bill or getting rid of oil subsidies.

Liberals can hardly expect this generation of humanity to live up to the moral duty of protecting its grandchildren by passing comprehensive climate change legislation, if the energy lobbies are still in place with the ability to invest millions in political expenditures with an expected ROI.

Economic Justice/Financial Reform

Angered how brown and black communities paid the harshest consequences for a mortgage crisis that was irresponsibly, and often fraudulently, precipitated by a combination of predatory lending and high-risk shadow banking on Wall Street? Think Dodd-Frank didn't do enough to shine light into those largely unregulated derivatives markets or to ensure 'too big to fail' and 'too big to jail' don't happen again? Those are more than understandable grievances that deserve consideration of redress.

Problem is, enacting legislative redress or imposing stronger safeguards will be tough to accomplish as long as the largest contributor to the Senate Banking Committee is the banking industry. The members of the House Financial Services Committee are the stated watchdogs of the banks and the overseers of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the SEC. Their biggest benefactors are those very people in Finance, or more broadly, the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) as it's known by insiders. The invested interest is clear, if the conflict of interest is somehow not.

A loan officer at Wells Fargo admitted in an affidavit filed in June 2009 that employees had called black clients mud people and subprime lending ghetto loans. "We just went right after them," said Beth Jacobson, a former top-producing subprime loan officer at Wells Fargo. Jacobson, who is white, told the New York Times "Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans."

The 2008 financial crisis destroyed household wealth, particularly in communities of color, and during the depths of the Great Recession the House passed H.R. 1106, the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009. However, by the time it made it to President Obama's desk the strongest parts of the bill were struck down by the banking industry. And the banking industry happily takes credit.

"We led the way on this and are clearly responsible for defeating this for the third time this year," said then-Chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association David Kittle.

As Majority Whip, the man responsible for lassoing the consensus needed to pass bills in the upper chamber, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) had front-row seating as the banks' blitz against bankruptcy reform kicked into gear. Durbin helped add a provision known as "cramdown," which according to WoltersKluwer, a global information services company, would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify or renegotiate the loan terms for families with existing mortgages on their primary residence "when they have exhausted other options."

Senator Durbin told a radio station back in his home state during the heat of the bankruptcy fight that the banks "are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." In the 2008 election cycle, the securities and investment industry gave $178,781,210 to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups - nearly 60 percentof that funding went to Democrats. In conjunction with electoral efforts, four of the industry's top trade groups spent nearly as much on lobbying in the first three months of 2009 as they did in all of 2001, according to the New York Times and ProPublica.

With a supermajority in Congress and a mandate from their base to get tough on banks, many believed Democrats would get their way. And cramdown did gain passage in the House. But the industry's influence entrenched in the upper house when a swing against cramdown occurred after a torrent of visits from industry donors' representatives.

John Courson, then CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, responded to Durbin on the podium at the MBA conference which was held on the eve of the cramdown vote: "Senator Dick Durbin just said yesterday, 'it's hard to imagine that today the mortgage bankers would have clout in this chamber, the Senate' - but they do - that means it's working."

Striking a similar jaunty tone, MBA Chairman Kittle proclaimed to his fellow lobbyists at the conference, "The cramdown vote may come tomorrow and, uh, wouldn't it be beautiful for it to go down to defeat while we're up on the hill at the same time. The timing just couldn't be better. Maybe a rainbow will come out tomorrow."

While anticipating victory, Kittle concluded his speech to fellow banking lobbyists with a sports analogy about persistence. "We kinda have to consider this like the NCAA bracket. We're not to the championship game, yet - it's coming back. So we need to keep fighting it. We need to keep giving to the PAC - on a regular basis." And they have. Data collected at the Center for Responsive Politics shows the finance sector contributed $32,082,452 to the Senate Banking Committee in the 2014 election cycle alone.

Kenichi Ueda of the International Monetary Fund and Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the University of Mainz, assessed that due to their size the biggest banks receive a subsidy of about 0.8 percentage points - that works out to $83 billion dollars a year from taxpayers. Meanwhile, according to Pew Research Center, wealth inequality has widened along racial lines since the end of the Great Recession. White net worth is now 10 times that of latina/o households and 13 times that of black households - its highest point since 1989.

In this year's first democratic primary debate, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley argued for reinstating Glass-Steagall, a New Deal era law that separated commercial banking from potentially riskier investment banking. Glass Steagall was repealed in 1999, after a $300 million lobbying effort by the banking industry, spearheaded in Congress by a top beneficiary of the industry, then-Senate Banking Committee Chairman Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX).

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz diagnosed "tearing down the walls" as a contributing factor to the environment that created the 2008 financial crisis. The Center for Responsive Politics found "the 195 Democrats who supported the repeal had received an average of $179,920 in the two years and 10 months leading up to its passage, while the 59 Democrats who opposed it received just $83,475."

In 2013, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) co-sponsored the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act to modernize the restrictions. It was never allowed to come up for a vote.


Michigan Supreme Court Justice Alton Davis was ousted in 2011 from his special appointment after an election that drew in the money of out-of-state interests opposed to his rulings on the environment. "The old labels don't mean anything," Davis told NPR. "Republican doesn't mean anything. Democrat doesn't mean anything. It's the huge money and everybody else. That's the deal now, I think, going forward. Up and down the road."

Donald Trump incidentally made that case during a GOP debate when responding to criticism about his contributions to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans. "When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do," he shrugged. "As a businessman, I need that...and when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them and they are there for me - and that's a broken system."

Current campaign finance law establishes a series of monetary barriers to entry for candidates and filters influence in a way that pushes those in office to vote in favor of well-moneyed special interests in order to finance re-election campaigns rather than voting primarily according to a mix of polls and their own principles. It prevents reforms that could promote socioeconomic justice and siphons the overwhelming majority of the public out of the democratic process while promoting wealthy families, and the corporations they helm, to the role of gatekeepers of the republic, or put less flatteringly, oligarchs.

Heeding ever-present accusations of a liberal media bias, reporters aiming to objectively hold the purveyors of all ideologies accountable often appear hesitant to admit the remarkable degree of financial control the white elite donor class maintains over American democracy -- but fear of subjectivity shouldn't prevent the unvarnished divulgence of multiple analyses' conclusions, lest journalists prioritize balance over candidness when faced with formidable, disquieting evidence.

If following wider publicization action is taken on campaign finance, the solutions selected are up to the electorate. More conservative approaches have advocated matching funds or supplying $50 vouchers which every citizen can donate to his or her campaign of choice. Others have proposed across the board public financing or called for a new Constitutional Convention to establish an anti-corporate personhood amendment.

But for now - as the failure of Professor Lessig's attempt to get on the debate stage shows - campaign finance can barely budge its way into the conversation. As President Obama's former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton has suggested, it's possible that only an outright scandal will popularize the issue and spark enough outrage to ignite change.

In the meantime, America is charging towards de facto oligarchy. And frankly, no matter how indignantly people tweet, how many protests they attend, how many online petitions they sign, or how progressive a president they elect, none of the liberal base's idealized solutions are likely to be realized -- not as long as money is doing most of the 'talking.'

Photograph: KeystoneUSA-Zuma / Rex Features

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