The threats to our democratic republic in the era of President Trump are frightening. He and his administration have launched a banzai attack of corruption and lawlessness against our democratic processes that is unprecedented in modern history. Consequently, it’s a challenge to focus on the most relevant topic to write about in the midst of this war on our institutions. But there is one critical issue that predates Trump and will continue even after the glorious day he is gone – the corrosive influence of money in politics.
First, however, we need to consider who doesn’t have the money and who does. The Federal Reserve published a report in May 2018 about the wellbeing of U.S. households that gives us some good data. Here are a few of its disturbing findings:
- Four in 10 adults could not handle an unexpected expense of $400 unless they sold something or borrowed the funds.
- Over one-fifth of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full.
- Over one-fourth of adults went without needed medical care in 2017 because they couldn’t afford it.
- One-fourth of non-retired adults have no retirement savings and more than three-fifths of them don’t believe their savings plan is on track.
A March 2019 report of financial accounts and wealth distribution published by the Federal Reserve Board found the following:
- The top 10 percent of U.S. households controlled 70 percent of total household wealth in 2018, compared to 60 percent in 1989. Their gain almost mirrored the wealth share loss by the 50th to 90th percentile, which declined from 36 percent to 29 percent.
- The top 1 percent increased their wealth share from 23 percent to nearly 32 percent over these three decades.
- The bottom 50% of the wealth distribution experienced virtually no increase in their net worth over this same period, resulting in a decrease in total wealth share from 4 percent in 1989 to just 1 percent in 2018.
In fact, research by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who study wealth inequality, found that the combined net worth of the bottom half of Americans was negative. And almost 80 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck according to a 2017 report by employment website CareerBuilder.
Wages have increased somewhat over the past few years and the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act gave small tax reductions to most working people. But studies show that the greatest benefits of this legislation flowed to big corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Well, Walmart is among the world’s largest corporations, and the five members of the Walton clan — its primary beneficiaries — comprise the richest family according to Bloomberg’s recent ranking. Their wealth grew at over $100 million per day since June 2018 and added $39 billion to the Walton family fortune of $191 billion. And the Walton’s aren’t alone in the top 1 percent of wealthy Americans; estimates indicate there are over a million households in this group.**
These statistics should leave no doubt about who has the money to buy political power — and it sure isn’t the vast majority of “we the people.”
There was an attempt to level the playing field when Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known the McCain-Feingold Act. Even though he failed to stop it, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) greatly elevated his status in the GOP by ferociously opposing this legislation. Still, it didn’t survive for long.
The conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court emasculated the McCain-Feingold reforms with its 2010 landmark decision in the Citizens United case. It ruled that corporations and unions are people for the purposes of the First Amendment protection of free speech and that money is speech. This result led to the creation of super PACs and anonymous donors supplying a flood of “dark money” support to political campaigns.
Needless to say, running for Congress is very expensive. My wife and I live in a district that experienced one of the costliest U.S. House races in 2018. The total spent was almost $27 million, a shocking $16 million of which was from outside groups. The truth is, House members must start raising the funds for their next election as soon as they notch their first win. Most must spend many hours on the phone to donors instead of tending to the people’s business. Sadly, special interest groups like the National Rifle Association can make or break a politician with their campaign financing decisions.
Sure, there are probably as many wealthy Democrats as there are rich Republicans. But Democrats typically favor campaign finance limitations, while Republicans oppose them. I think there is a reason for this; Republicans can’t win with their policies in a fair election so they rely on gerrymandered districts and voter suppression. Keeping lots of money in politics is just another way they seek to tip the scale in their favor.
But voters still control election outcomes – don’t they? Well, not necessarily. Big money in the primary contests can decide who ends up on the ballot come November and this money can whisper warnings in the ear of elected officials before a vote on legislation to control guns, climate change, campaign financing, oil exploration, etc.
It has become clear to me, however, that there’s a sure way to eliminate money in the election process, stop the current corruption at the highest levels of our government and maintain democracy in our democratic republic: Vote Republicans out of office.
**Trump’s Treasury Department will borrow over $1 trillion this year, part of which is required because the Walton’s and other 1 percenters got a big tax cut.