Law and Public Policy

The Million Dollar Question

August 5, 2015  • Dan Glickman

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

*This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

Candidates on stage tomorrow night will represent over $200 million in Super PAC money alone. The frenetic race for money goes on in a never-ending cascade of donor calls, house parties in Hollywood or Silicon Valley or Wall Street. And no one has stopped to wonder whether or not all of this money is eroding the foundation of our democratic system of government and our deeply held belief that all Americans deserve a government that represents their interests.

Never in American history has the political system endured such a tsunami of cash. Voters are frustrated, party institutions are sidelined in favor of mega-donors, the political system continues to be hobbled by partisanship, and with all this money sloshing around very few people believe that they are getting a fair shake from their leaders.

I contend that many voters on both sides have a legitimate belief that our political system is irrelevant to the lives of everyone except those at the top

The truth is that, even though the Republican high-end donors (the four hundred or so families who have given almost half the money raised by candidates so far), are dominating the headlines this is not a partisan issue. As we get closer to Election Day both parties and their eventual nominees will likely be more and more reliant on high-end donors. There is also a strong likelihood that this money rush will spill over into congressional races on both sides of the aisle and have enormous impact on down ballot races.

More cash into more political arenas deepens and hardens public distrust in government and political leaders. Candidates are able to mystify pundits with poll numbers that belie their experience and credentials, and it’s often heard that a candidate is “tapping into a vein of unhappiness and distrust in government.” But there isn’t much questioning of why such a level of distrust exists in the first place. I contend that many voters on both sides have a legitimate belief that our political system is irrelevant to the lives of everyone except those at the top. Sure, candidates offer this or that on income inequality or tax policy or social policy, but mostly the public policy we need for a better America like infrastructure investment, significant education reform and so forth is completely stuck. Voters are unhappy and not being served by a government that is paralyzed by money, money that binds politicians to the views of a handful of Americans, stokes the flames of partisanship and keeps Congress and the president from doing anything truly transformational.

There is much to make us discouraged, but perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that no one seems to want to do anything about this issue. In fact, I wonder if there will even be a question posed tomorrow to the multitude of candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination about the impact of money in our political system? All of this is going on and we aren’t even having a discussion about its impact on our democracy and our country.

It’s not just Republicans either; Democrats are just as caught up in the seemingly unstoppable gravity of campaign fundraising as the GOP. Voters and non-political leaders must make money in politics a much higher priority. Community leaders, celebrities, academics, members of the faith based community, business leaders and the voters themselves must do something and speak out or this malignant money craze could consume our system of government. We don’t need to arrive at a specific legislative or constitutional solution to this problem; we just need a much more serious recognition that solving this is fundamental to the long term survival of our democratic institutions. When can the discussion or the debate begin?

Our best hope to break this madness is to call on leaders outside of the political system to put their feet down and cry out, like Howard Beale in the movie Network, “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And, the burden ought to be on the media to ask the right questions. Let me suggest one for tomorrow’s debate. They might ask the candidates, “You all, in various amounts, have received very large contributions from a very small number of individuals. How can the ‘little guy’ who cannot afford to contribute more than $100.00 ever hope to compete for your attention in such a system?”

Dan Glickman is vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program.