Law and Public Policy

Can Political Influence Be Shifted from the Money to the Many?

January 26, 2016  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger


Aspen Ideas Festival panelists discuss the influence of money in politics.

*This article was originally published on the Aspen Ideas Festival website.

While most Americans believe that money has too much influence on politics, much of the focus on this issue has been on increasingly expensive political campaigns, fueled by super-PACs, corporations, billionaires, and, in cases such as Donald Trump’s and Carly Fiorina’s, the candidates themselves. A session at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival delved deeper into the matter, exploring the influence of money on public policy, and what, in this age of innovation, could counter the trend and bring back the intrinsically American ideal of a popular democracy in which everyone’s voice counts.

Lucas Welch, director of the Pluribus Project, an initiative aimed at cultivating the people’s political power, began the session with some startling information about how little American voters’ opinions actually matter. Here’s how he explained it:

Given some of the tectonic shifts American society is living through — particularly millennials coming of age and the vast changes technology is causing in every other industry — Welch believes the political process will not emerge unscathed in this era.

“If there’s any trait that’s American, it’s the capacity to innovate under changing conditions,” said Welch. “And I believe that’s what’s going to bring power back to the many.”

In particular, Welch sees the diminishing importance of TV ads (the dominant form of political advertising for the past few decades) amidst the rise of Internet-based content shared among friends, which relies heavily on peer-to-peer recommendations.

When moderator David Leonhardt of The New York Times asked what public policies would be different if money and the opinions of economic elites didn’t drive policy so much, panelists agreed the impact would be felt economically.

Where opinions and policy preferences really differ between the wealthy and the middle and working classes is economic policy questions, said Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a public-policy organization that studies political and economic inequality.

If policies on things such as taxes, the minimum wage, and social services spending weren’t so driven by wealth, “I think we would have less inequality in our economy,” said McGhee.

John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic and a seasoned political campaign manager, said the deficit would drop “a lot” if public policy weren’t so influenced by money.

“There’s so much transactional giving now, it’s almost part of a business plan,” said Pudner. “People are giving huge sums of money and expecting things back in taxpayer funds.” Of the many examples where campaign spending and federal government spending likely track closely together, pork spending is just one, he added.

Interestingly, technology has not yet disrupted politics as much as it has other industries, said Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of

“We wanted a better democracy, and we got better ad targeting,” said Rattray, who nevertheless believes that American politics is on the cusp of being very much disrupted by technology. Rattray suggested that in the coming years there will likely be apps, websites, and other digital platforms that voters can use to educate themselves on candidates and ballot issues.

The key to empowering voters, said Rock the Vote President Heather Smith, will be that the information is user-generated and can be shared among peers to validate it, particularly among young people who are used to communicating that way.