Few people guessed that Donald Trump would be sitting ahead in the polls at this stage in the presidential election. Fewer, if any, guessed he would be a vocal critic of our big money election system.
At the Republican primary debate earlier this month, moderator Brett Baier asked Trump about something he said in a previous interview: “When you give, [politicians] do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
“You’d better believe it,” Trump interjected with his familiar bravado. The candid description of trading campaign cash for favors that followed revealed everything that is wrong with our government of, by, and for big donors. “That's a broken system,” Trump concluded. (And revealingly, none of his opponents on the stage denied it.)
This is not the first time the real estate mogul has called attention to the way our political system rewards big donors while shutting everyday voters out of the process. Trump has been critical of Citizens United, the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the modern super PAC elections with which we’ve become all too accustomed. When several of his opponents flew out to a California resort to hobnob with billionaire donors associated with the Koch brothers, he knocked them as “puppets.”
To be clear, Trump holds plenty of problematic positions. He’s opposed to marriage equality, increases to the minimum wage, and has a habit of talking about women as animals. He thinks immigrants are “rapists” who are “bringing drugs” to our country. His rhetoric is outrageous and his policy positions are terrible -- but his diagnosis of our broken campaign finance system is on the mark.
Citizens United was a horribly flawed decision that handed the wealthiest among us, Trump included, even more power to influence government. Our elected leaders have becomes puppets to a handful of wealthy donors. The system is fundamentally broken.
Trump and I aren’t the only ones who think so. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 85% of Americans support fundamental changes to the way we fund political campaigns. Asked to rank their top concerns about the upcoming presidential election, most Americans pointed to the sway that companies and wealthy individuals will have over the outcome, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. Americans of all political stripes are more than ready for our elected leaders to rebalance the system so all of us can have a real voice in our democracy.
Unfortunately, Trump has yet to pivot from his honest assessment of the problem to a constructive conversation about solutions to fix it. Scoring rhetorical points against corrupt politicians will certainly draw applause lines, but when it’s not paired with concrete solutions, will only harden the already rock-solid cynicism that causes many to throw up their hands and disengage from a political system that doesn’t represent us.
Trump’s assurance that he can’t be bought is simply not a solution. If he’s concerned about our big money system, is he ready to fight for limits on overall campaign spending, including on the amount that can be spent by self-financed campaigns? Is he prepared to endorse reforms that allow everyday Americans to be heard and represented in our elections, rather than just billionaires like himself? In other words, does he really want reform, or is he just grandstanding?
Last month, People For the American Way and eleven other national organizations concerned with big money politics released "Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda," a comprehensive plan to make democracy work for all Americans. We sent a copy of the agenda to Trump and the other presidential candidates. We also asked for meetings with every candidate to discuss the agenda and what they will do to address the pressing issues corrupting our democracy.
Some of the candidates have already shown real leadership in the movement to get big money out of politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders has long been a champion of campaign finance reform, and Hillary Clinton made it one of the “pillars” of her campaign. Both Clinton and Sanders, as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham, have voiced their support for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. Larry Lessig is launching a referendum candidacy to make campaign finance a central issue in 2016. What we need now is to move toward a comprehensive set of policies, that, if implemented together, would bring us closer to realizing the democratic vision embodied in our country’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Instead of making our elected leaders dependent on a smaller and smaller share of our population making larger and larger campaign contributions, we need to provide incentives such as matching public funds that encourage the active participation of small donors in our elections. We need to overturn disastrous court rulings like Citizens United so we can once again place reasonable limits on money in politics. And we must protect and expand voting rights so everyone has a voice in our government. Candidates should be accountable to, and dependent on, the people — not wealthy donors and special interests.
Despite his offensive commentary and policy positions, Trump is right about one thing: our country has a serious problem with money in politics. What we need now is to move beyond clever talking points, and even beyond individual policy solutions, and give voters a credible, comprehensive plan to ensure government of, by, and for the people.
Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way.