Ah, democracy. A system where political leaders are fairly elected for the people, by a majority of people, to protect and serve the nation. Or, not so much.
The influence of money in politics and campaign funding has become a terrifying new reality in the shared democracy of the United States of America. Politicians are no longer elected for their platforms and ability to serve the American public. With cash on the table, politicians exist to serve their donors instead of their voters, which affects the policies they support, how they allocate government spending, and their expressed values.
A few organizations are working to remove the influence of cash within politics. American Promise is making a difference by attempting to uphold our democracy via the passing of the 28th Amendment, which would overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows uncapped spending and contributions from corporations to candidates in an election cycle. On the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast, Cory spoke with President Jeff Clements on the stakes of implementing such groundbreaking legislation and how the organization’s goal shapes their day-to-day work.
What is the Role of Money in Politics?
Regardless of our personal feelings, money makes the world (and democracy) go round. In our current system, anyone that runs for office needs a serious amount of dough. Some staggering data from the 2020 elections shows that 87.71% of the Senate wins were won by the top-spending candidate. As compared to $2.13 billion in 2000, more than $5.7 billion was spent in the Trump–Biden race. The candidate with the most money usually wins, but, in this case, Biden beat Trump with $1.69 billion raised compared to the $1.96 billion raised by Trump. But billionaires are also running for president and pumping their campaigns full of their own dollars. Billionaire Tom Steyer was a Democratic candidate who put $200 million of spending cash into his own campaign, which is a sum unthinkable to anyone except the super wealthy type.
The History of Money in Politics
In 2010, the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court made it legal for corporations and labor unions to funnel cash through Super Political Action Committees (super PACs) and advertise for the success or defeat of candidates. Sometimes the collective value of super PACs is worth more than the election campaign itself. PACs are pools of funds that are controlled by companies, trade associations, unions, or an interest group. Super PACs can raise unlimited donations, but they cannot directly give those funds as direct campaign contributions.
It seems unfathomable that these external entities have such leverage in our election process. But in the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case on campaign finance, they overturned spending restrictions that dated back over 100 years. In the Citizens United case, justices argued that free speech was violated by suppressing donations and preventing corporate donors from spending on campaign finance. A slight majority of justices didn’t believe that there would be a corrupting influence on democracy, but we know from lobbying that is false in this country.
Super-rich Americans are another category to be aware of in campaign finance. An obvious outlier, but still among the wealthiest donors in the world, is Michael Bloomberg. This Democratic former mayor of New York City spent $1 billion in the 2020 election to prevent Trump from winning. How does this impact democracy? This elite, super-wealthy class is almost single-handedly funding elections, which impacts the overall functionality and integrity of our government. Less than 1% of Americans fund the elections of government officials, meaning the power lies in the hands of few.
Problems with Money in Politics
Instead of platforms, merit, and credibility, cash has become a determining factor for who wins the most crucial elections in the United States. Also, the influx of cash from corporations and interest groups sways our political leaders to pass legislation that supports these entities, regardless of the public’s best interest. The introduction of money in politics has allowed corporations to buy leverage that alters the fabric of our economy.
Even in congressional races where elections are largely predictable due to the partisan makeup of the state, a massive amount of spending is still filtered into campaigns. The donors receive legislative benefits from Congress, and they could also receive tax breaks or weakened regulations that reduce the amount of their corporate taxes.
Beyond political advertising and election contributions, cash is influential in the lobbying industry. Hired lobbyists descend on Congress to access politicians and push for policies on behalf of their clients. Often fueled by the revolving door process in which politicians become lobbyists and vice versa, it’s clear that our democracy is unduly affected by spending and lobbying instead of voters.
Former President Donald Trump racked up 3,700 conflicts of interest by the time he left Washington. Some members of top special interest groups, including the National Confectioners Association and Community Financial Services Association of America, earned special treatment and stayed at the former president’s properties, which led to favors from the American government.
How to Reduce the Role of Money in Politics
There are organizations that seek to change the law and reduce the contribution amount that individuals or corporations can spend on fundraising campaigns for PACs. These reformers are from each party, and they exist to give full access of the political system to all Americans, instead of a few individuals.
Some researchers and organizations are unearthing donor data to follow dark money where there were no disclosure requirements. CREW is fighting for accountability in all governments through the power of the law. The Brennan Center for Justice champions solutions like small-donor public financing. She Should Run identifies and supports female candidates for office, and it guides them to public support, ethical donations, and victory.
American Promise: Removing Money from Politics
Founded in 2016, American Promise is a nonprofit organization that seeks to win the 28th Amendment. This 28th Amendment to the Constitution would overturn the Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited spending in political campaigns, and it would rebalance the scales of elections. The Amendment needs a vote of two-thirds in Congress and ratification of three-quarters by the states to succeed. The last Amendment was in 1992, but Jeff is hopeful that their mission will gain traction as both sides of the aisle are concerned about corruption and contributions made to political candidates.
Jeff Clements, President of American Promise
Jeff has an extensive history as an attorney, founder, and advocate for the public. He is the author of Corporations Are Not People, and his work has been featured in a variety of publications, including U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe, and The Hill. Jeff is also the managing partner of Whaleback Partners LLC, which invests in entrepreneurial businesses that are building a sustainable local food economy.
Jeff first served as assistant attorney general and chief of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. He led staff in law enforcement and litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental protection, healthcare, insurance and financial services, antitrust, and consumer protection. Jeff also served as an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts where he worked on litigation against the tobacco industry and handled a wide range of other investigations and litigation to enforce unfair trade practice, consumer protection, and antitrust laws.
“Most Americans agree there’s way way way too much money in politics and most of it is having a corrupting, undue influence and locking out the voices and views of most Americans who don’t have that kind of money to spend.”
As Jeff mentioned in the podcast, this is an issue that appeals to each party. Americans can come together to help remove the corrupt nature of money in politics by helping to move the 28th Amendment forward. You can start with the following actions to build support and public awareness for the movement.
- Sign the Pledge: First, state your involvement in the cause. Your commitment can be put into writing to support the 28th Amendment on the American Promise’s website with this pledge to save our democracy by regulating spending.
- Contact Officials: The Amendment needs congressional support, so contact your legislators to express your personal belief and values that big money needs to get out of the election process. This template can be used to find contact information.
- Join a Chapter: On the local level, see if your state has an American Promise chapter or any grassroots organization that supports the 28th Amendment. Check here to see what your state has to offer and why you should volunteer.
- Follow the Cash: Check out the Center for Responsive Politics to follow the cash and learn more about the influence of big money donors and self-preserving interest groups in Washington.
Closing: More Money, More Problems
For too long, money has been the one thing that has reigned supreme in America’s government systems and left corporate accountability unchecked. Washington should be full of candidates elected by the public for the public and not candidates willing to bend the rules in the interest of big spenders.
To change the world, democracy, and America, it is crucial for the 28th Amendment to be passed and ratified, so that groups with excessive cash don’t have a bigger say in our government than voters.
Additional Resources and Links from the Podcast:
- American Promise on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn
- 2021 National Citizen Leadership Conference
- Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations by Jeff Clements
- Our Common Purpose
- Jack by Marilyn Robinson
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.