The Not-So-Secret Reason Why Women Lack Political Power

With Hillary Clinton the forerunner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, women holding an unprecedented one in five Congressional seats, and political candidates openly courting the women's vote (albeit sometimes in hilariously out-of-touch ways), it's tempting to hope that women are on the cusp of achieving equal political power in America. But if we examine our country's real power players -- the ones who mold the national political agenda and dictate which individuals launch a White House bid in the first place -- women remain severely underrepresented. The reason is simple: Men are the ones with the money.

It's no secret that our nation's political system is controlled and funded by a narrow sliver of Americans. The Associated Press announced this week that the twenty-two presidential hopefuls and their affiliated super PACs have jointly raised nearly 400 million dollars, despite the fact that less than one quarter of one percent of Americans donated even two hundred bucks in the last election cycle. Of that 400 million, about half has gone toward Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush alone; as a result, two of our most popular candidates for president of the United States have quickly become dependent on a tiny, elite fraction of voters.

And that tiny fraction is overwhelmingly male. A recent study conducted by Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota, Greg Kaplan of Princeton University, and Jae Song of the Social Security Administration looked at the top 0.1 percent of income earners in the country -- those who make more money than 99.9% of Americans -- and found that nearly nine in ten were men. The gender disparity carries over into political contributions; of the top 500 households that donated to political campaigns in the 2014 election, women accounted for just 8.2 percent of contributions.

This imbalance would be unfair on its own, but in our corrupted political system, where a person's political power is directly tied to the size of his wallet, it's doubly problematic. The tragic reality is that our democracy has devolved into an oligarchic system in which wealth translates into influence. As a 2014 Princeton study concluded, the average American has a "minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy," while the policy preferences of economic elites are highly correlated with the successful passage or defeat of federal legislation.

When these economic elites are predominantly male -- the names of Jeb Bush's super PAC donors read like a bachelor party guest list -- this means that American public policy is disproportionately influenced by men. Decisions about whether to prioritize issues like paid sick leave, affordable child care, birth control access and equal pay are not ultimately made by the people they impact most: women. This should upset anyone who believes that all people, regardless of gender, deserve an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.

To be sure, women have stepped up their contribution game in response to Hillary Clinton's presidential race; her campaign reported Wednesday that 61% of its donors thus far are women. Unfortunately, we have yet to learn what percentage of the donations themselves came from women - and as we know from research, it's the size of the donation, not the act of donating itself, that buys political influence. Still, even if every woman in America were to pour her money into Clinton's race, the fact would remain that men, if they so chose, could overwhelm those donations by sheer fact of their economic dominance. Pending a dramatic change in the gender wealth gap, men still hold the reins on political power.

Of course, women are not the only ones hurt by our corrupt political system; it deprives the vast majority of Americans of their political voice. If we want our elected officials to truly represent us, we need to overhaul our political system so that money no longer equals influence. That means stopping political bribery, making it illegal for special interests to write exorbitant checks to the politicians who regulate them. It means ending secret money, so millionaires and billionaires can't make unlimited contributions behind a mask of anonymity to elect and defeat candidates. And it means giving every voter a voice by changing how elections are funded, so politicians can get elected by representing their constituents, women and men alike -- not by selling out to special interests.

We can usher in these changes by passing Anti-Corruption Acts in cities and states across the nation. These reform bills, based on model legislation called the American Anti-Corruption Act, do more than protect our communities against corruption: they set the stage for national reform by making it possible for local candidates to run for federal office without becoming financially dependent on an elite, unrepresentative sliver of Americans. Thousands of people across the country, conservatives and liberals alike, are already passing Acts where they live; you can raise your hand to join them here.

Our fight against corruption will be incredibly difficult. But nothing less than equal political power for all Americans -- the dream of our founding fathers and mothers -- is at stake.