NOWist Wendy Schiller is a professor of political science at Brown University. The title of this blog post is inspired from this favorite tune.
Loud cries were heard from liberal quarters this week when President Obama announced he would encourage supporters to give big bucks to Priorities USA – the Democratic wannabe version of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. After all President Obama was the man who promised to reduce the influence of big money, but then went on to break all presidential campaign fundraising records after declining public financing. On the Republican side, we have already seen candidates, such as Gingrich and Santorum, who might otherwise have faded away but for individual men of vast wealth. The latest rich guy savior is Foster Friess, who made the front page of the New York Times today for being willing to spend his own money to fuel Santorum’s campaign against Mitt Romney - the rich guy frontrunner in the GOP primary.
The wealthy in America have been fueling campaigns since the origins of political parties in the early 19th century. Elected in 1828, President Andrew Jackson, and his effective 2nd in command, Martin Van Buren, knew how to use money in politics. But they also knew how to avoid the appearance that the rich were pulling all the strings. Jackson stood as the first real popular man of the people president, but it took money to build the party organization supporting him. Jackson understood that the voters would not mind so much where that money came from, so long as some of it trickled down to them in the form of government jobs and infrastructure.
Regrettably, that lesson was lost on the political leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century and that was most apparent in the elections of U.S. Senators. From 1789 to 1913, our U.S. Senators were elected indirectly through state legislatures. As the age of industrialization produced incredibly wealthy men in the sugar, mining, railroad, and banking industries, these men used their wealth to influence campaigns. They would literally hire middle men to distribute thousands of dollars to state legislators to vote for their preferred candidates, or even themselves! In 1899, for example, two rich mine owners in Montana spent nearly $1 million dollars buying votes from state legislators. The votes for U.S. Senator would be held in the morning, and the legislature would convene hearings into the bribery charges in the afternoon. It was a well accepted proposition at that time that a U.S. Senate seat was merely a commodity that could be bought and sold by the richest bidder.
Here’s the good news. Thanks to the social and political movements, notably the Progressives and key elite media organizations, public pressure for reform grew so great that in 1913 the House and Senate, and three-fourths of state legislatures, adopted the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which instituted a system of direct elections of U.S. Senators. Reformers believed that by forcing Senate campaigns into the larger arena of direct statewide voting, it would expose the corruption and limit the influence of the super wealthy on election outcomes.
Flash forward to 2012, nearly a century after the adoption of the 17th Amendment, and we have the nationwide arena of presidential elections. But the super wealthy are poised to be more influential than at any time in our history thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s efforts in dismantling campaign finance laws. What’s the average voter to do about this? Should we really care? If rich guys want to waste their money in the GOP tearing down the front runner, or propping up candidates with limited prospects to defeat Obama, then why should liberals bemoan the influence of money? Likewise, if wealthy liberals want to donate millions of dollars to reelect President Obama, what’s the problem?
The problem is this: Big Money is the single most corrosive element in a democracy. It stacks the system against the majority in favor of the minority, and rarely produces public policy that benefits the nation as a whole. Most important, the appearance that money can buy a U.S. Senator, or U.S. President, undermines the very foundation of a system of government that relies on equality to protect liberty. The first step in the fight against Big Money is to ignore it, as best we all can, and try to make our voting decisions based on what we can learn – factually – about the people who seek our votes. In 2012, voters on all sides of the political spectrum have to show politicians that Big Money can’t win the election, or buy the democracy out from under them.