Rethinking America

US: Systematically Hollowing Out Democracy

U.S. political campaigns are one vast, sprawling political slush fund, designed to create a money-based web of post-election dependencies that is vast and largely impenetrable.

Credit: Stas Walenga Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The US presidential election had one especially important outcome: It saved US democracy from Trumpian autocracy -- at least for now.
  • Joe Biden, campaigning to “save the soul of America,” won. Trump, striving to save himself, lost
  • Campaign contributions are the most telling evidence for the cash-driven corruption that fundamentally undermines the entire US election system.
  • Both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for an election system driven completely by how much money candidates can raise.
  • The present US campaign finance system turns races into financial battles. A better approach must be found.

The U.S. presidential election had one especially important outcome: It saved U.S. democracy from Trumpian autocracy — at least for now.

Joe Biden, campaigning to “save the soul of America,” won. Donald Trump, striving to save himself, lost. “Democracy got a reprieve,” says U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

But looking from the outside in, the rest of the world is still at a loss. The 2020 election cost upwards of $14 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it not only the most expensive election in history — but twice as expensive as the previous 2016 presidential election cycle.

The vast amount of money raised by campaign contributions ultimately is the most telling evidence for the cash-driven corruption that fundamentally undermines the entire U.S. election system.

That so much money flows is a blight upon any notion of a sound democracy.

A rare case of bipartisanship

Both major political parties have been relentless in raising cash. Consequently, both are to blame for an election system driven completely by how much money candidates can raise.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two prominent U.S. Senators who failed to win the 2020 Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, had both made anti-corruption central to their campaigns.

They wanted to rid U.S. politics of the massive cash sums that slush their ways through every aspect of elections.

Their worries are absolutely valid. After all, so much money sloshing around, mainly based on campaign contributions from private sources, creates a vast and rather impenetrable web of post-election dependencies.

People and corporations express clear expectations, often not so charitable ones, with their contributions. Many expect a payoff, whether in the form of legislation, regulation, contracts being awarded or personnel choices made.

Donors, small and big

Americans made millions of small individual contributions because they understood that the outcome of this election was of vital importance to the nation’s future – indeed, the world.

Political action committees (PACs) representing business and all manner of other interest groups raised staggering sums. Many of those behind the political action committees gave, at least in part, to enhance their influence in Washington’s political corridors.

And, of course, the billionaires paid up. According to the U.S. Federal Election Commission, as of October 23, the largest individual donor was Las Vegas casino owners Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.

They gave Republicans $183 million. As you may recall, Mr. Adelson had lobbied Donald Trump with success to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv early in his presidential term. He also lobbied to curb competition in the casino business.

Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyr, two billionaires who both failed to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, gave Democrats $107 million and $68 million, respectively. At a minimum, they could get posh U.S. ambassadorships from President Biden in return.

Raising more cash now

But even though the main event, the race for the White House, is over, there is yet more money to raise.

The Republican and Democratic fund-raising campaigns are in full gear right now, relentlessly sending out tens of millions of email requests for more cash. Their focus is exclusively on the fate of the U.S. Senate.

The Republicans, who currently control the 100-seat Senate, to date have secured 50 seats in the next U.S. Congress that convenes in January 2021.

They need just one more seat to secure their control. If the Democrats win two more seats, placing both parties at 50-50, then the deciding vote will fall to the Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, and the Democrats will be in charge.

Gunning for Georgia

No candidate in Georgia’s two Senate races won more than 50% of the vote, so there is to be a run-off vote on January 5.

On the Republican side, the two current incumbents, Senators Purdue and Loeffler, are calling for vast financial support to pay for huge advertising campaigns. The Democratic challengers, Ossoff and Warnock, are doing just the same.

This battle over Georgia campaigns will be blunt and dirty. Racial prejudices will be sharply highlighted to energize voters. Accusations and counter-accusations of corruption and malfeasance of all kinds will abound — with every charge and counter-charge portrayed in endless streams of television advertisements.

And it will not only be the four Senate candidates at the core of much of the advertising. The Lincoln Project, consisting of former Republicans who now support Biden, are raising cash to run advertisements in Georgia that target Republican Majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell.

They warn, with good reason, that if McConnell continues to be in the driver’s seat in the U.S. Senate as Majority Leader, he will ensure Biden fails as President. The Project’s latest ad proclaims: “It is time for Republicans to put America first.”

Will this ever be resolved?

Hundreds of millions of campaign dollars could overwhelm the voters of Georgia in coming weeks. Will it make voters any the wiser about the issues? Will it increase, or decrease voter confidence in the whole election system? Will it all be accounted for?

The present U.S. campaign finance system, at best, supports the “duking out” aspect of democracy. It turns races into financial battles. That surely is no way to strengthen a democracy. A better approach must be found.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, with both major U.S. political parties — along with their armies of campaign consultants, ad people and outreach people etc. — having their fingers so deep into the dough, any hope for sincere reform appears more than slim.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that the one body that could put an end to all this madness, the U.S. Supreme Court, even under a much slimmer Republican majority among the Justices decided to put oil in the fire in 2010 when its decision in the ‘Citizens United’ case opened the floodgates to what are in fact unlimited cash contributions from corporations, special interest groups, individuals and campaigns.

In conclusion, in 2020, democracy was saved, but the wisdom of the view once expressed by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer dare not be forgotten: “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

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