In the last decade alone, large corporations and affluent individuals have spent almost $4.5 billion attempting to influence federal elections, manipulating the democratic process and silencing the voices of millions of Americans.
The historical problem of money’s influence on politics and the democratic process has been an immense problem throughout America’s history, affecting every branch of government and congressional decision. The roots of the problem can be traced back to before America gained its independence, and is even more prevalent now.
I am personally interested in this social injustice problem, because I have always been interested in politics and have been closely following the current Presidential race. From Pete Buttigieg’s “wine cave” fundraising dinner, to Tom Steyer “buying” his way onto the debate stage, money has played an enormous role in the Democratic Primary and the presidential election. The idea that our democracy, which we believe is so fair and democratic, could actually be manipulated by corporate influence is very intriguing to me. I’m also very interested in how much of an impact money can have on politics. I am really curious about not only how money affects an election, but also how it affects the decision making of the candidate following the election.
The History of the Problem:
Before George Washington became the 1st president of the United States of America, in 1755 he ran for the Virginia House of Burgess, the legislative body at the time. He received less than 7% of the vote, falling far short of being elected. Two years later, he decided to run again, this time using his personal finances to buy alcohol for all of his friends and supporters. Unsurprisingly, he got over 700% more votes than in 1755, and was elected to the House of Burgess (Fuller; Barton). This early example of using money for political gain foreshadowed much larger problems in the years to come.
In the controversial presidential election of 1896, Republican Candidate William McKinley ran against Populist/Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. McKinley’s platform was very pro-business, supporting tariffs and court decisions that benefited large corporations. Seeing this, large businesses poured funds into McKinley’s campaign through his campaign manager Mark Hanna. Hanna was a very wealthy businessman who gained his fortune from the coal and iron industry. Using his corporate connections, and promising a pro-business platform with “rewards of patronage”, Hanna was able to raise almost $4 million, including hundreds of thousands of his own money (“Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election.”; “Mark Hanna”; Chandler). Bryan, who ran a much more traditional campaign that appealed more to the working class than to the affluent upper class, felt that “Hanna’s bottomless well of financing bought the election for McKinley” (Chandler; Bryan).
In the past, many people and organizations have attempted to solve the problem of money’s influence on politics, but none so far have been successful. In 1907, the Tillman Act was put into law under Theodore Roosevelt. It aimed to stop corporations and businesses from spending money on political campaigns. However, the wording of the act itself was too vague, and corporations quickly found ways around it. In 1910, Congress passed another act aimed at making the democratic process more democratic, the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. It forced House of Representative candidate campaigns to disclose every campaign contribution over $100. However, this act was also very easy to circumvent (Fuller).
To learn more about the repeated failures of Congress to solve this problem in the past, as well as the extent of this social injustice throughout history, visit my historical problem essay.
What You Need to Know:
The amount of influence money has on politics has changed greatly in recent history, with each new landmark case and law shaping the very roots of our democratic process. In the last 17 years, the Supreme Court ruled on many cases involving campaign financing and political spending; the most relevant being McConnell v. FEC in 2003, and Citizens United v. FEC in 2010.
The McConnell v. FEC case was in response to the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed in 2002 under the Bush administration (Fuller; Cruikshank). The BCRA was one of the first major acts targeted at regulating campaign financing (Fuller). It sought to “‘end the use’ of soft money in federal elections”, as well as end corporations’ and unions’ ability to use their own money to fund “issue advertisements”, ads that explicitly mention a candidate within a certain period of time from an election (“CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC: CORPORATE POLITICAL SPEECH”; “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act”). Soon after being signed into law, the act was challenged by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the NRA, and other organizations (Fuller). In his lawsuit, McConnell claimed that the act violated the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the FEC in the majority of the decisions, only choosing to overturn minor parts of the law (“McConnell v. Federal Election Committee”).
In 2008, Citizens United, a conservative ideological group whose purpose is to spread certain political messages, released a documentary called “Hillary: The Movie.” Because it featured Hillary Clinton, and was released less than 30 days from the Democratic Primary, it qualified as an “issue advertisement” (“CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC: CORPORATE POLITICAL SPEECH”; Raja). While Citizens United was a non-profit, it received money from for-profit corporations and by using that money to pay for the documentary, they were in violation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Citizens United challenged the constitutionality of that part of the BCRA, arguing that by restricting the way corporations can use their money to spread political messages, the government is violating their First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech (“CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC: CORPORATE POLITICAL SPEECH”). In a 5-4 decision, along party affiliations, the Supreme Court overturned the provisions in the BCRA that limited the amount of “soft money” corporations could spend on “issue advertisement” and other independent expenditures (“Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee”).
Following Citizens United, the amount of political spending has quickly gotten out of hand, with each election cycle since 2010 breaking election spending records. There has also been a sharp increase of “dark money” since Citizens United, money from undisclosed groups and individuals that is impossible to track. However, perhaps the largest change in political spending since Citizens has been toward mega-donors, individuals who donate exorbitant amounts of money to attempt to influence elections. In 2010, pre-Citizens, the largest individual donor donated just $7.6 million, because of the strict rules limiting the amount one person could donate. However, post-Citizens, that number ballooned to over $92 million in 2012, as individuals could simply funnel their money through a super PAC into the political domain (Arke). A super PAC is a type of Political Action Committee that has no limits on how/where it raises its money from, but it is not allowed to directly contribute to or coordinate with a campaign. A regular PAC has limits on how much an individual can give and who can contribute, but it can give that money directly to a campaign (“PAC Vs. Super PAC”; Arke).
In response to the ruling, many Democratic lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation to control this problem. In 2010, Senate Democrats repeatedly tried to pass the “Disclosure Act”, a bill that would have had stricter requirements on the disclosure of contributions from corporations and other groups, but were defeated by Republicans and business groups who lobbied against the bill (Eggen). House Democrats tried to pass the “Fair Elections Now Act” in 2010 and 2013, but that too was killed and never became a law (Boyle). In 2014 and 2019, Democrats attempted to pass the “Democracy for All Amendment” that would effectively overturn Citizens United and previous rulings, but were blocked by Republicans in the Senate (Everett).
To learn more about the current state of the problem, as well as other court cases relating to campaign finance reform, you can read my essay.
Because this problem is for the most part in the political domain, it may seem like as an individual, your voice won’t be heard and it’s not possible to have an impact. However, there are ways for you to create change and help solve this problem.
- If you are fortunate enough to be in a stable financial position, consider donating to an organization or campaign combating this problem. To stay unbiased and independent, many organizations like Opensecrets.org have to rely on contributions from readers to stay running and to keep fighting for democracy and fairness in our political system. In addition, Democrats need a strong majority in the House and Senate to pass legislation to fight this injustice, so donating to a democratic candidate’s campaign in a battleground state like Texas or Maine for the House and Senate is also an effective way to contribute.
- Communicate with your state and county representatives and urge them to push for democratic legislation. Sites such as Commoncause.org can help you get in touch with your representatives and make sure your voice is heard. They have tools to help you prepare a strong, concise message that will encourage your legislator to combat this issue.
- Stay informed. The most important thing you as an individual can do is to stay educated and aware of the issues going on. Subscribing to newsletters from nonpartisan, reputable sites like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal can keep you informed about this issue. Be an educated citizen who can actively engage in politics and defend your rights.
- Nullify the Citizens United ruling by ratifying the “Democracy for all Amendment.” The amendment would allow Congress to differentiate between people and corporations, voiding the Citizens ruling by taking away the corporation’s freedom of speech. This amendment would be more effective than simply overturning Citizens, as it also essentially overturns the previous Supreme Court rulings, and closes the door for similar rulings in the future.
- Enact stricter disclosure legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act. Require organizations and Super PACs to disclose the identity of all donors who have contributed more than a certain threshold. This would expose the dark money donors and allow for more transparency in the democratic process. It would also create a level of accountability for the corporations and organizations funneling money into politics.
- Restructure the campaign finance structure to give every citizen an opportunity to have a real impact on the democratic process. With our current system, the top few donors are able to “drown out” the rest of the population by contributing huge amounts of money. By implementing a system like in New York City (page 20 of the link), where public funds match small campaign contributions by 6 to 1, citizens will have more representation, and candidates won’t have to pander to large corporations for funding. Another possible system is the one currently being used in Seattle, where every citizen is given $100 worth of “Democracy Vouchers”, which they can give to their candidate of choice, allowing every citizen to be able to participate in the democratic process and have their voice heard.
Call To Action:
I encourage you all to reflect on the solutions in this web page, and do your part to fight this social injustice. Additional solutions and thoughtful dialogue in the comments below would be greatly appreciated. I would specifically love to hear what you think about the systems currently in place in New York, Seattle, and other cities across the country!