As an organizer who works for campaign finance reform, I had hoped the most expensive election in American history would spark renewed outrage among progressives against corruption in our Republic. Instead, we had much to rejoice for on November 6: The billionaires who poured money into races had lost. Badly. For many of the heavy hitters (read: plutocrats), the so-called electoral “return on investment” was abysmal. All eight candidates backed by Sheldon Adelson, the single largest donor in political history, lost. Out of the eight Senate races American Crossroads, the gem of Karl Rove’s empire, invested in, only one paid off (defeating Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska). And of course, despite a $260 million advantage in outside spending, Mitt Romney lost.
Unfortunately, the fact that our public offices could not literally be bought has led progressives to erroneously claim that “the era of big money in politics is over.” Friends of mine have openly questioned the need for campaign finance reform. These proclamations stem in part from how Obama’s affinity for small donors disguised his heavy use of big money and dark money. But beyond Obamaphilia, these premature celebrations reveal a deep misreading of how money corrupts our democracy. The results of the 2012 election are a minor setback for 21st century robber barons, not anywhere near a fatal blow.
The real power of money in politics has never exclusively been the ability to buy an electoral result. The real power has been to buy political influence and distort legislative outcomes – regardless of electoral results. We must be vigilant about this point: The threat is not that President Obama and progressive Democrats cannot be elected due to big money. The threat is that even if President Obama and progressive Democrats are elected, they cannot produce progressive legislation due to big money and relentless lobbying.
Ironically, it was Sheldon Adelson who pulled back the curtain on this. Asked by a Norwegian reporter what he thought of making his political contributions, he merely replied: “paying bills.” Pundits have characterized Adelson’s spending as losing “bets” or “gambles,” but Adelson reveals that for him political spending is just another cost of business. When the Adelsons of America give money they are not betting on one candidate – they are buying influence and access to the party elite for the long term. As David Firestone says in The New York Times, Adelson’s roster of losses “in no way reduces his influence. He can demand meetings with top Republican officials whenever he comes to Washington, and he will inevitably be courted by the party’s presidential hopefuls.”
Their long-term influence is secured by the ever-increasing cost of campaigns. No matter who won, the $9 billion to $11 billion price tag on the 2012 elections bodes very well for mega-donors. Even before the 2012 election, politicians spent 30 to 70 percent of their time fund-raising, and studies found the US Senate had “extreme biases in responsiveness to constituents in different economic groups, with more wealthy individuals receiving the highest level of representation.” Unless campaign costs are reined in, these trends will only worsen, and candidates on both sides will spend even more time pandering to the very rich.
Adelson, although a great figure for liberal schadenfreude, may not best represent how this influence-buying corrodes our politics. He invests exclusively in conservatives. The real Machiavellians play both sides. Take Wall Street. A subplot of the “We beat big money” narrative is that Obama won in spite of “Wall Street abandoning him.” In fact, Wall Street simply gave more money to Romney ($19 million) than to Obama ($5 million) and overall spent $221 million, 31 percent to Democrats and 69 percent to Republicans (this compared to 2008, when 57 percent went to Democrats and 43 percent to Republicans). Wall Street spending money (albeit in shifting proportions) on both parties doesn’t make sense when we only understand big money as a purchaser of electoral wins. It does make sense when see big money’s role as primarily an investment in political influence.
And that investment pays off. Big money, through political spending and lobbying, has an incredible return-on-investment in the legislative arena, regardless of its electoral record. Oil companies gave $347 million in campaign contributions to members of the 111th Congress (including Democrats) and received $20 billion in subsidies. That’s a 5,664 percent return on investment. Under Bush, pharmaceutical companies paid lobbyists $116 million to ensure Medicare could not bargain for competitive drug prices. They then received $90 billion due to inflated drug prices. That’s a 77,500 percent ROI. And although we have not calculated the ROI on Dodd-Frank financial regulations, Matt Taibbi has exquisitely chronicled the ways Wall Street lobbyists have wrecked what should have been easy reforms (reinstating Glass-Steagall, ending Too Big to Fail bailouts) and then whittled away what remained of the bill until it became toothless.
So did the Democrats beat big money? Did big money lose? Not at all. Plutocratic strategists may have realized that TV advertising is a poor investment in political capital, and thus Super PACs have already turned their war chests over to lobbying. While liberals were celebrating, the Big Banks’ political operatives did not miss a beat. A little more than four years after being bailed out by taxpayers, corporate CEOs are once again distorting the political agenda, pushing the so-called “fiscal cliff” debate toward pro-business tax cuts. Big banks did their best to prevent bankruptcy expert and Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren from getting on the Housing Banking Committee, and they are surely working hard to prevent her from doing anything with her new seat. And in the clearest example of how money can corrupt supposedly progressive heroes, Obama has reversed his decision to “change business as usual in Washington” and will allow unlimited corporate cash to flow into his second inauguration.
The right-wing donor network lost in the electoral arena, but the fact that our democracy was not totally stolen is little comfort when big money blocks progressives at every turn. The plutocrats have regrouped. We must remember the disappointments of the first term. Remember how many of our hopes – health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, real Wall Street reform, climate legislation, progressive tax policy – were either defeated or mangled by the influence-buying lobbyists and campaign donors. We have to fight to fix the broken campaign finance and lobbying system to make a more progressive Congress possible.
Democrats should not wait for a more costly election to realize this and push to strengthen public funding through the Grassroots Democracy Act, the Empowering Citizens Act, or the newly unveiled American Anti-Corruption Act. Underneath the jovial but overly hasty pronouncements of big money’s demise, citizens scored a series of victories that are laying the groundwork for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United. Let us not allow false celebration to extinguish our courage while the hired agents of corporations pummel our representatives. Let’s make this victory real and push for publicly funded, citizen-driven elections. And please let’s not wait for 2016.