Big Money in Politics is the Enemy of Progress

Big money from wealthy donors and corporations is truly a bipartisan problem.

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Close up of a one hundred dollar bill, Benjamin Franklin side

Photo by Adam Nir

For anyone under the age of 45, it seems like we’ve been told since we began voting that every election is the most important election ever. While it’s easy to write this off as hyperbole to increase turnout, it's easy to see why each election feels like an existential crisis. We have many problems that have basically been left unchecked for decades–climate change, crumbling infrastructure, income inequality, out-of-control costs of healthcare/education, and more.

So much attention has been rightfully paid to the anti-democratic aspects of our government lately, like the electoral college, gerrymandering, and the filibuster. There isn’t one reason our government cannot address these problems, but there is one massive barrier to progress: the unmatched influence of money in politics.

While the wealthy and connected have always had the ability to have an outsized influence on our politics, not since the gilded age have the ultra-wealthy and large corporations have had such massive power. It’s not solely to blame, but Citizens United was a key turning point. Billionaires and corporations can go beyond just lobbying to now funneling almost unlimited funds to PACs.

Some of the effects of this funding are pretty obvious within the Republican Party–continuing a narrow focus on cutting taxes for the rich and corporations and removing regulations that limit corporate power. But it’s also led to several far-right candidates getting elected due to support by far-right billionaires like the Mercer family and the Critical Race Theory fervor paid for by the Koch Brothers.

It may be a bit less obvious in the Democratic party, but money's influence is no less insidious. In some cases, it's fairly straightforward when politicians have local industries that fund their campaigns heavily. For example, some New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Democrats receive lots of donations from the financial services sector and are more likely to support their interests over the interests of their constituents. In other cases like Nancy Pelosi’s baffling opposition to student loan debt cancellation, it makes more sense when you find out one of her largest donors is opposed. A popular tax reform in the reconciliation bill is the elimination of the stepped-up basis for rich heirs, but one of the biggest opponents of ending this handout for the ultrawealthy is none other than former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Lucky for us, Joe Manchin was captured on a call with donors explaining exactly why he opposes the filibuster—because then Democrats might be expected to pass progressive legislation that corporations oppose. Even the trimmed-back reconciliation bill has corporations spending tons of money to stop its passage. This is why conservative Democrats like Manchin and others prefer bipartisan policy–the only thing that is truly bipartisan is support for corporate interests.

All of this can understandably push you down the electoral nihilism path of “both sides are bad, so why bother.” But there’s also a light at the end of the tunnel. While social media has brought many negative impacts on our democracy (looking directly at you, Facebook), it also has brought more people into the political process through grass-roots organizing, using tools like Resistbot to pressure your elected officials and small-dollar political funding through platforms like ActBlue. The impact is undeniable and we are witnessing a sizable and growing progressive caucus that is not at the behest of corporate interests. The inability of corporate Dems to force through the bipartisan infrastructure bill without the bigger reconciliation bill is a perfect example of this power being wielded.

How do we build on this progress and pass legislation to get big money out of politics? Clearly, just voting for Democratic candidates isn’t enough when many are standing in the way, and giving money to the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC only helps protect the status quo.

First, vote in all your elections. The smaller the election, the larger impact your individual vote has. Help get your friends and community to turn out to vote by creating a voting drive. Use the driveCreate your own voter registration and pledge drive keyword to create your own vote drive, send it to your friends, and Resistbot handles the rest: making sure they’re registered to vote and texting them before Election Day to turn out.

Second, support progressive candidates you believe in—both by voting for them in primary elections as well as volunteering or donating directly to their campaigns.

Third, support great organizations like Run For Something. They’ve been able to turn small-dollar grassroots campaigns into big progressive victories nationwide. Finally, make sure the elected officials that do represent you hear your voice. The only thing corporate-funded politicians are afraid of losing more than their financial backing is their election. Strong constituent responses can force them to change their position.

While corporate interests are deeply entrenched in our legislative process, we have the ability to push them aside when we all make our voices heard.

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