In light of a newly elected Biden administration, many have proclaimed that a triumph of democracy has taken place. But was Joe Biden’s win really a victory for democracy? The evidence suggests otherwise, by a wide margin.
The 2020 election was the most expensive election on record, with Democrats outspending Republicans in both congressional and federal contests. Spending was just shy of $14 billion in total, an unprecedented record and double the amount of 2016. In fact, the Biden campaign broke monthly and online campaign funding contributions of all time — boosted in large part by Wall Street donors. Biden’s campaign, in fact, became the first ever to raise over $1 billion in campaign donations. Donald Trump, on the other hand, finished second in total campaign contributions by a presidential candidate, beating out Obama’s 2008 record-shattering numbers. In fact, this characterizes the overall trends.
The Financial Times writes that listed companies increased their donations to Democratic groups this year over the Republicans, noting that this was “a sign that executives are trying to win favour with liberals on expectations of conservative defeats nationwide in the November elections.” Furthermore, both presidential campaigns were “boosted by unprecedented outside spending by big-money super PACs and ‘dark money’ groups” that were bolstered by ultra-wealthy individuals. In fact, the greater the contributions, the less transparent the Biden campaign became with records, even going as far as declining to disclose the names of its most prominent fundraisers.
If we take an even closer look, the picture becomes even bleaker, revealing how undemocratic the United States really is. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson, an authoritative scholar on money and electoral politics, has a valuable and established political science theory called “the investment theory of politics.” He demonstrates that the U.S. is essentially controlled by coalitions of investors who come together around some mutual interest. Thus, “to participate in the political arena, you must have enough resources and private power to become part of such a coalition.”
He argues that since the early 19th century, there has been a persistent struggle for power among these groups of investors. Moments of conflict come along when groups of investors have differing points of view on public policy, while on policies where large investors are in agreement, no party struggle takes place. Importantly, parties attempt to change the public’s opinion to match those of its investors.
These findings are applicable elsewhere. In fact, further research by Ferguson and his colleagues on the effect of wealthy investors and money on election outcomes has shown that campaign expenditures are an excellent predictor of U.S. congressional races: “Money in American politics … suggests that analyses … of the American political system should begin by looking closely at money politics when they attempt to understand political change, especially political system’s steady shift to the right since the late nineteen sixties. Our tentative conclusion … is that seeing should, after all, be believing: the case in favor of the proposition that money drives US elections is significantly strengthened.”
Ferguson’s research on the political power of the rich is no outlier, either. A major study by Princeton scholar Martin Gilens and Northwestern University professor Benjamin Page reveals that the vast majority of the population — 70 percent on the lower end of the wealth and income scale — is essentially excluded from policy decisions and effectively unrepresented. They conclude that as you move up the scale, influence gradually increases. More importantly, when you reach the very top of the scale, these affluent groups essentially determine policy.
The authors reveal that regardless of a Republican or Democratic head of government, the government follows the policy preferences of major lobbying or business groups rather than policy preferences of the general population. They determine that, “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Yet, even with these stark conclusions, the study had its limitations. One is that it didn’t show who among the rich and wealthy has the greatest influence. Additionally, it excluded major business groups such as the Business Council and the Committee for Economic Development, and neglected to note the importance of individual firms and investors.
The latest research published this year by two analysts, Shawn McGuire and Charles Delahunt, fills these gaps and builds upon this work, reinforcing the observations even further. Utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning, McGuire and Delahunt advance the thesis by showing it is actually worse than what others have found. Their study reveals and confirms that the top wealthiest 10 percent ultimately always win on policy — effectively showing that anyone else’s opinion outside of the top 10 percent rarely matters.
Thus, the preferences of the top 10 percent along with the opinions of certain interest groups can effectively explain and determine how policy is hammered out with remarkable accuracy. As such, the opinions of those in the lower scale of income reduces the accuracy of prediction in accordance with Gilens and Page’s similar findings.
McGuire and Delahunt’s objective was to examine to what degree legislative outcomes could be predicted based on the preferences of the rich, and to a lesser extent, business interest groups, by applying a machine learning tool to Gilens and Page’s dataset on 1,836 major U.S. federal government policies, policy opinions of the top 10 richest in income percentile, and interest group preferences, to build a predictive model of U.S. policy. Their conclusion was strong: policy outcomes were predictable with a 70 percent degree accuracy utilizing the policy preferences of those in the 90th income percentile, showing the rich speak with their wallets.
In fact, they even note that while the 90th income percentile functions as a proxy for the opinions of elites, their results would probably fare even better if they had data on the opinions of the top 1 percent. They conclude what is generally suspected: The “likely lodestar variable affecting policy outcomes … is the transfer of large amounts of money to policy makers from the wealthiest sources focused intensely on particular policies.”
Every new study that concerns the power of the rich on U.S. democracy is more striking than the last. Biden’s election victory only adds more evidence to these overall trends. In fact, as we have seen, this isn’t at all surprising. U.S. society is dominated by the rich, who have the ultimate say on public policy and elections. If one wants to understand how policy is determined in our country, one will need to look at the opinions of the wealthy and how they invest their money.
Our political system features inauthentic political parties that lack organized public participation, and where elite-run candidate selection institutions reflect the opinions and interests of the rich. As a result, the feelings of discontent are clear through the gradual rise of conspiracy theories, the rise of con artist politicians like Donald Trump, and the rise of religious fundamentalism and other social ills. (Yet, it is important to note that 82 percent of us, not unrealistically, hold the opinion that the rich have too much influence in politics. A majority of the population favor a wealth tax on the rich).
Thus, recent proclamations of a “restoration of democracy” are nothing more than fallacy, contrary to recent mainstream pronouncements. In light of all of this, McGuire and Delahunt comment that it is “strange to observe the fight for ‘democracy’ currently playing out on screens across the country,” yet “the underlying disease — money-driven policy outcomes — leading to present-day symptoms goes mostly unspoken.” Additionally, “the current election is of critical importance, but a society that pins its hopes for democracy on quadrennial extravaganzas heavily funded by wealthy interests will be disappointed, as these players will perpetually win the game.”
It is very important to note that this doesn’t mean that all is lost. In order for the general population to have a say in their affairs, they would need, as Page and Gilens advocate, a “social movement for democracy” to counter the extraordinary power of the wealthiest of society. This movement, they note, should be similar to the civil rights and New Deal-era movements. To this end, if the Biden administration were to cancel student and medical debt or pass extremely popular policies like Medicare for All, an authentic and organized mass movement is the only way to make progressive policies possible.