FIGHTING THE INFLUENCE OF BIG MONEY IN POLITICS
Our political system is awash with cash from corporations and wealthy donors. Ordinary Americans feel that their opinions don’t count; low voter turnout is a reflection of that sense of helplessness. Following the Supreme Court decisions Citizens United and McCutcheon striking down limits on campaign contributions, opposition has begun to grow. The findings of a 2014 study from Princeton University show that these feelings are warranted:
“[E]conomic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence… [O]ur estimate of [the] average citizens’ influence on policy making… is near zero. …In the United States, our findings indicate, 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 and/or with [business oriented] organized interests, they generally lose.”
Our democracy more and more resembles a plutocracy, not surprising given that income and wealth inequality is greater in the US than in any other industrial nation. Various campaign finance laws have been passed since 1867, with only modest success at limiting the influence of money in politics. The McCain-Feingold law of 2002 was meant to stop the flow of unlimited “soft money” to candidate campaigns and political parties. But corporations (for-profit and nonprofit entities) and wealthy donors simply shifted their donations to outside groups, following a strategy pioneered by Democrats during the Bush years. From 2004 to 2008 the level of outside money increased 164%; it rose 135% from 2008 to 2012. Most of this increase occurred before the Citizens United Decision in 2010 and all of it occurred before the McCutcheon decision in 2014.
This paper discusses approaches that environmentalists and social justice advocates are considering, and others that they should consider, to counter the power of money over politics and our lives, including lessons learned from people’s struggles during the Great Depression.