The 2020 Election Shows How Organized Money Devoured American Democracy

This year’s election cycle was the most expensive in history — and, thanks to oligarch-friendly campaign finance laws, we don’t even know where much of it came from.

Signs supporting Donald Trump and Joe Biden are posted side by side in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on October 26, 2020. (Andrew H Walker / Shutterstock)

If there were any lingering doubts about the outsize influence of organized money in American politics, the past year should put them safely to rest.

In late October, an estimate by the Center for Responsive Politics pegged the total cost of the 2020 election cycle at a whopping $14 billion — up from the $11 billion it had initially projected. This week, the center reported that the figure could grow even larger, thanks to the coming Senate runoffs in Georgia with Joe Biden winning the dubious honor of being the first presidential candidate in history to raise $1 billion — easily outpacing the roughly $774 million raised by Donald Trump.

By any conceivable standard, these are impossibly vast sums of money. Measured against 2020, in fact, recent elections don’t even come close. Between presidential and congressional spending, 2016 elections cost half as much, with 2012 costing just over $6 billion and 2008 just over $5 billion. In other words: political fundraising in 2020 will amount to more than the figures from 2012 and 2008 combined.

Where did all the new money come from?

According to the Center’s analysis, the biggest driver was overpowering Democratic fundraising, which gave the party an unprecedented financial advantage. Even with the massive sums spent by billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer on their presidential primary campaigns, Democratic candidates and groups had still spent a whopping $5.5 billion as of late October, compared with the $3.8 billion spent by their Republican rivals.

Though widespread antipathy toward Trump was undeniably a factor, Biden’s small-dollar fundraising actually fell short of his opponent’s: the Trump campaign raised some 49 percent of its money from small donors giving $200 or less, while the same figure vis-à-vis the Democratic nominee was only 38 percent. A breakdown of Biden’s donors by the center shows that contributions to his campaign committee, plus spending by aligned PACs and super PACs from a handful of industries, played a critical role in boosting his fundraising edge. From the finance, securities, and investment sector and the real estate sector, for example, Biden raised $76.9 million, $74 million, and $34 million, respectively, compared to the $32.7 million, $18.1 million, and $22.7 million Trump raised. Large contributions made up more than 60 percent of Biden’s donations and just over half of Trump’s.

Outside spending, meanwhile, is projected to amount to at least $2.6 billion, or nearly double what it was in 2016. Here, too, it appears that Biden had an edge, with groups like the hybrid PAC Future Forward USA — which has ties to Silicon Valley — spending hundreds of millions to aid his campaign, while Trump-aligned super PACs trailed behind. With a considerable majority of outside spending coming by way of super PACs, we have no way of actually knowing where much of the money originated.

More transparency, of course, would only go so far. When asked by CNN about dark money in November, Biden’s aides declined to comment on record and instead pointed to the campaign’s decision to allow reporters to listen in on fundraising events — a decision that clearly didn’t dissuade Biden from fundraising off big donors (or indicating that his policy preferences largely aligned with theirs). More disclosure would probably do little or nothing to diminish the influence of organized money and would, in all likelihood, merely confirm what we already know: that the wheels of American democracy are greased with unfathomable sums of money from wealthy individuals and interests seeking to influence political outcomes for their own benefit — and that candidates who amass the most money almost invariably win.

In its infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling, a major catalyst for the spending bonanza of 2020, the Supreme Court insisted that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” with conservative justices adding the addendum that political “expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.”

We know, of course, that the general thrust of these claims is wrong. Large businesses, wealthy people, and corporate interest groups don’t make big donations to candidates or parties out of sheer civic-mindedness but because they ultimately expect something in return. In at least one major court case involving a fossil fuel company, corporate lawyers have explicitly argued their clients make political contributions “as part of their business strategy” — a case of the blatantly obvious being confirmed if ever there was one. Direct quid pro quo corruption, furthermore, is hardly the only game in the town when it comes to exchanging money for influence. As dissenting justices rightly argued back in 2010:

Corruption can take many forms. Bribery may be the paradigm case. But the difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind. And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf . . . There are threats of corruption that are far more destructive to a democratic society than the odd bribe. Yet the majority’s understanding of corruption would leave lawmakers impotent to address all but the most discrete abuses.

Far from taking the form of direct bribery, the outsize influence of organized money tends to be something even more insidious: a kind of gravitational force in America’s political institutions that perpetually bends politicians and public discourse around itself, marginalizes dissenters, and gives extreme wealth an omnipresent voice in elections. Campaigns are an expensive business, and corporate interests will always have more to chip in than the constituencies opposed to them.

Organized money is therefore the most important lubricant of American oligarchy — and, unless it’s expelled from the country’s campaigns and political institutions, future election cycles will make 2020 look clean by comparison.