The 2012 campaign is by now mercifully out of our systems, but it remains worth reflecting on some of the dubious firsts that occurred during this election. This was the first presidential campaign to cost more than $2 billion. It was also the first time neither candidate accepted any public financing or the limits that come with it. Finally, it was the first presidential election after Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allowed around $600 million in super PAC donations this cycle, and many millions more to nonprofit “social welfare” groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.
But even these bleak facts don’t do justice to the problem of Big Money. Campaign spending isn’t even our most dire money-in-politics problem. That would be the thousands of lobbyists and many millions of their dollars that are devoted to the warping of our public policy. These powerful lobbies control most outcomes on Capitol Hill, and the problem is far worse than it was 20 years ago. Congressional staffers, representatives, and even senators leave public service only to join the lobbying firms of industries they were previously responsible for regulating, trading in their access and social networks for stratospheric salaries. It sometimes seems as if money and influence-peddling aren’t the occasional impurities in the political system, but the fuel that keeps it running.
To make matters worse, the government-reform movement is woefully underfunded and understaffed in the battle against groups like the Chamber of Commerce—organizations that have the resources of entire industries behind them. This makes mustering the political will to enact even uncontroversial measures—like requiring the disclosure of large-money donors—seem impossible.
In this issue of Democracy, we highlight the problem of money in politics. As a journal of ideas, we tend to let others discuss electoral horse races and the day-to-day jockeying for political advantage. But as has become increasingly clear in this era of rampant economic and political inequality, even the best ideas stand no chance when their opponents have Big Money on their side. To get the best ideas a fair hearing, progressives must first tackle the problem of political corruption.
And, importantly, everyone who wants to see fairer and less corrupted politics needs to be a part of this effort. Indeed, the central point of this symposium is to persuade advocates on behalf of all good-government and progressive causes that the fight against Big Money is their fight, too. Whatever their desired outcome is, it’s Big Money that on some level is blocking it, and its dominance won’t be challenged until everyone realizes this and puts skin in the game.
We asked 11 contributors to diagnose the different parts of this problem and prescribe some solutions to each. Bill Moyers and Arnold Hiatt pen a letter to their friends in the progressive philanthropic movement, arguing that political reform groups are desperately in need of funding and support. Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons make the case for why foundations that fund worthy causes like environmental and health-care reform need to invest more in the reform movement—and propose a specific way for them to do so. Wendell Potter argues that even groups with nonpolitical agendas—like those devoted to public health or retirees—must make political reform a priority.
Stan Collender recalls the moment when lobbying first infected the politics behind the budget—and describes how things have only gotten worse. Meanwhile, Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil take a look at the economic impact of that distorted budget process—and argue that political inequality has paved the way for economic inequality.
What do we do about it? Trevor Potter and Bryson B. Morgan lay out a series of solutions to the problems created by Citizens United, none of which would require the nigh-impossible step of enacting a constitutional amendment. Finally, former Senator Russ Feingold bemoans Democrats’ succumbing to the new campaign-finance order and suggests how we can build a permanent movement for political reform.
While we have at least a couple years before the presidential cycle restarts, there’s no time like the present for reform. The more corrupted the system becomes, the harder it is to fix. More time means more companies dependent on tax breaks, more donors flooding races with money, and more politicians who see their future careers dependent on current votes. The foundation for a new progressive agenda begins with loosening Big Money’s grip on our politics and policy.