The Growing Problem Of Money In Politics Requires A Third Party Solution

And it doesn't have to mean electoral disaster.
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Americans are still coming to grips with the reality of an administration intent on moving the nation backward on virtually every critical social issue. President Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ combined assault against hard-won advancements on climate change, health care, wealth and income inequality, criminal justice reform, and minorities’ and women’s rights goes on, and with an opposition party that appears unable (or unwilling) to do what is required to effectively combat these destructive developments, one may rightly ask exactly whose interests are currently being represented by our government.

The two major political parties in this country do, in fact, represent those that put them in power. Unfortunately, those who deserve the lion’s share of credit for choosing our elected officials are those individuals and organizations with pockets deep enough to warrant access to a process that is simply no longer available to the average American. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two least popular presidential candidates in history, spent $2.43 million and $1.05 million respectively, per electoral vote. These numbers grow with every election, and down-ballot national, state, and local elections are scarcely better. Money in American politics has become undeniably pervasive, and it is by no means restricted to one party. While Trump filled out his cabinet with former Wall Street executives and corporate cronies, senate Democrats elected as their leader a man who, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, has taken more money from lobbyists than any other sitting U.S. Senator, from either party. The result of this type of dealing in our political system is fait accompli.

While the problem of the corrupting influence of money in politics is readily apparent, the solution to that problem is much less so. Some progressives suggest the answer is to reform the existing system from within the Democratic Party. Despite the best intentions of those supporting such a strategy, however, it is highly unlikely leaders of the party, who have ascended to and maintain power largely through the contributions of corporate donors, will be eager to reduce the flow of that money. It’s a safe bet the sources of such contributions will similarly fight tooth and nail to prevent any loss of the access and influence their money provides.

The reality is there is far too much inertia driving big money in our political duopoly to realistically expect any meaningful reform to come from within. The only way to effectively curb the corrupting influence of money in our political system is to elect individuals from outside the existing major parties, who are not beholden to the money that currently permeates them, and to fund the political activities of such individuals in ways that prevent the exertion of moneyed special interests from ever taking hold. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, funded almost exclusively by the small donations of many private individuals, provides an effective template. If elected officials represent the interests of those who put them in power, we must ensure our officials are put in power by the voters, seeking to advance the interests of a broad cross-section of Americans, and not a small number of wealthy donors seeking to advance a narrow set of corporate special interests. Unfortunately, for those operating within the current political duopoly, including the Democratic Party, this will simply never happen.

For those supportive of an independent, third-party political movement built on a model emulating Bernie Sanders’ grassroots campaign, what of the common refrain that such a movement will only splinter progressives, dividing their vote and effectively handing future elections to Republicans on a silver platter? Without question, this concern is earnest and legitimate. To minimize it or disregard those who give voice to it would be disingenuous. Notwithstanding attempts to appeal to voters across the political spectrum, a third party that espouses progressive policies and ideals will unquestionably run the risk of drawing many of its supporters from the Democratic Party and its candidates, potentially making some electoral victories that much easier for Republicans. And while interest among progressives in a third-party movement is soaring, this concern remains at the fore of conversations regarding the wisdom of such a movement. In fact for many years this very rationale has suppressed support for a progressive third-party and has kept power on the left concentrated in the traditional party establishment. Unfortunately, because of the pervasive influence of special interest money on both major parties, it has also guaranteed the continuation of pay-to-play access in our politics, and ensured that the interests of average Americans are not and will not be represented by their elected officials.

If the rise of an independent, progressive third-party risks solidifying power among Republicans, and continued support of the Democratic Party perpetuates an unacceptable status quo, what are sincere, reform-minded progressives to do? Those who support the growth of an independent third-party must take concurrent action to minimize the negative impact of such a movement on electoral politics. This can be done, for example, by instigating and supporting voter initiatives to change state ballot-access laws. Laws permitting Fusion Voting, which allows multiple parties to field the same candidate on a single ballot, and Ranked-Choice or Instant-Runoff Voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates on a ballot in order of preference, vastly reduce the threat of negative electoral outcomes for Democratic candidates, reducing the need for establishment-leaning progressives to oppose the rise of an independent third-party. Progressives must identify and pursue these and other strategies that account for and minimize the risk of catastrophic electoral results.

In the end, though, the answer to potential negative outcomes posed by the growth of an independent political party cannot be to discard the movement altogether. Not when the result of not having a progressive third-party has become clear. Absent the existence of a party independent of the current duopoly, with its attendant indebtedness to the special interests that provide its financial lifeblood, Americans will continue to get increasingly less from their government. Less access; less transparency; less representation. We can, and must, demand more.

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