Arrington: Big Money Threatens Democracy

We need to limit the role of wealth in how policy is shaped.

by Katherine Arrington | 11/10/20 2:15am

During election season, we love to talk about democracy. Between walking around Dartmouth’s campus and scrolling through Instagram, I have seen countless phrases such as “Make your voice heard” and “One person, one vote.” But how much impact do ordinary American citizens actually have on policy after we exercise that right to vote? Apparently, not much.

A study by professors from Princeton University and Northwestern University has found that the preferences of special interest groups and economic elites correlate strongly with policy outcomes, while the preferences typical Americans have almost no correlation with policymaking. This must change. The immense and largely unchecked role of big money in American politics — from political donations and lobbying to super PACs and dark money — is stifling true democracy. The U.S. government should work to limit the role of wealth in politics so that policy can be shaped by all Americans, rather than a privileged few.

Research has shown that politicians are more likely to hold meetings with potential donors than with regular constituents — making it easier for the wealthy to sway politicians’ minds. Thus, when the wealthy donate to political campaigns, the interests of the elite are overrepresented while the interests of average Americans are underrepresented — and there are considerable differences between the two groups. A study by professors at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University found that Americans with incomes in the top roughly 1% are on average more conservative than the general population when it comes to economic policy, while more liberal when it comes to social issues.

Special interest groups also utilize wealth to prioritize their policy preferences. One special interest group, the National Rifle Association, spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2019, as well as another $23 million on outside spending. This money has helped halt legislation restricting arms usage even though polls have shown a majority of Americans favor more gun control after the recent instances of school shootings and other gun attacks. Thus, big money can result in American policies often differing from the opinion of the vast majority of Americans. This is not indicative of democracy.

This imbalance of power must be corrected. First, campaign financing from private donors must be limited. Currently, the vast majority of political campaign spending comes from extremely wealthy individuals and corporate or special interest groups. The U.S. should pass legislation limiting the amount a single individual can give in total direct contributions, not just limits per contribution, as is currently the case. The government should also create a means of tracking and ensuring that these limits are followed. Likewise, limits should be placed on the amounts that individual special interest groups and corporations can contribute not only to political campaigns, but to lobby efforts and outside expenditures. While the majority decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission argued that this limits freedom of expression, in actuality it would ensure that all citizens are on an equal footing in expressing their policy preferences. Currently, this court ruling limits the proposals above. Thus, it is vital that legal action is taken to strike down this decision. Expressing political views should not be a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Second, to circumvent the court ruling in Citizens United as we fight for it to be struck down, we should enact small-donor public financing, which would address the issue of finding funds for political campaigns after the above limits are implemented. This method, advocated for by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, utilizes public funds to match campaign donations from in-state individuals. This amplifies the voices of average Americans, as each small donation quickly becomes six or seven times what it would otherwise be without this method. Its benefits are immense in that it allows contributions from small donors to make up the majority of political donations for participating candidates, rather than the typical disproportionate amount from large donors. 

Small-donor public financing would also incentivize candidates to spend more time conversing with small donors and help combat corruption in politics. The main drawback of this proposition is the large amount of public funding it would require. However, through adequate budgeting, this could be addressed — and the issue of money in politics is well worth prioritizing when it comes to public spending. In addition, small-donor public financing abides by the regulations outlined in the Citizens United decision, which means it could be instituted more rapidly. Thus, through small-donor public financing, the political impact of average citizens would be heightened while the role of wealth in politics would simultaneously decrease.

As long as the U.S. allows big money to play such a large role in the shaping of American politics, American democracy will be threatened. We need to find a way to cap the amounts of money financing elections. Reform is vital — our democracy is at stake.

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