(Mark Rosenman is emeritus professor at Union Institute & University and a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he wrote about the link between corruption and declining trust in our public and private institutions.)
The Supreme Court's recent campaign finance ruling is fraught with irony for lovers of democracy, underscoring as it does the fact that the United States is becoming more and more like Russia, where wealthy oligarchs dominate the political system as well as the marketplace.
Equating money with speech, and refusing to limit its influence in elections, as the Court has done in recent rulings, is a problem for society – and especially for charities and foundations that work to help the least advantaged among us. They know that government programs are critical to the well-being of millions and millions of Americans and that government plays an essential role in protecting the environment and promoting the health, safety, and security of all of us.
They also know that when the super-rich intervene in politics to promote their own interests over the public interest, it can be profoundly problematic.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what is happening. While we live in a democracy where each of us has an equal vote, most of us have become aware that the outcome of many elections, especially at the congressional, state and national levels, is determined before we get to the voting booth – in part as a result of increasingly negative campaigns funded by deep-pocketed donors. Nor are we under any illusions as to our ability to compete with wealthy corporations or their lobbyists when it comes to influencing politicians' decisions once they've been elected to office.
In the last election cycle, for example, a total of more than $6 billion in campaign contributions was raised for various candidates. More than a quarter of that money came from the top one percent of the top one percent of all Americans. In fact, the money of the super-rich was so important that not a single politician running for a Senate or House seat was elected without their campaign contributions. Although more than half the members of Congress are themselves millionaires, they depend on the wealthy to win and hold on to their seats.
The wealthy are willing to provide stunning sums to political campaigns for a simple reason: it's good business. Take the financial/insurance/real estate (FIRE) sector, which accounted for more than 20 percent of the top 31,000 (0.01%) of donors to political campaigns in 2012 and over 34 percent of the top 1,000 donors.
Needless to say, they get a very good return on that investment. The share of GDP claimed by just a portion of the FIRE sector has almost doubled since 1980 – a period, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman points out, in which elected officials acted to deregulate the financial industry. It should come as no surprise that the FIRE sector significantly increased its campaign contributions and lobbying activities over those decades, especially when re-regulation of the sector was being considered. Indeed, elected officials bring new meaning to the term FIRE sale: As the late philanthropist Phil Stern pointed out in his 1988 book, we have The Best Congress Money Can Buy.