The ambient influence of big money in American politics has become so overwhelming it can be difficult to discern where institutionalized bribery stops and anything even resembling the public interest begins. Just as ambient, fittingly enough, is the sound of mainstream politicians from both major parties condemning and decrying its corrupting influence, usually while finding creative new ways of leveraging it themselves.
America’s campaign finance debate has thus become both an arms race and an unconvincing pantomime act, with more than enough hypocrisy to go around. Every election cycle, it seems, now yields new innovations in shadowy fundraising, paired with increasingly absurd declarations from across the spectrum that raking in huge sums from wealthy people and powerful lobbies is the only way anyone can possibly compete — and, as some insist, win on the scale necessary to purge big money for good.
As political formulations go, it’s the kind of thing you’d have to be on drugs to take seriously. (“Our government has been bought by billionaires and corporations . . . and we need as many campaign contributions from them as possible to fix it. Q.E.D.”) Still, it’s essentially the argument we’ve heard again and again — notably from liberal figures who tend to be more vocal than their Republican counterparts about the need for campaign finance reform.
“We must also empower hard-working Americans in our democracy by building a 21st-century campaign-finance system . . . to increase and multiply the power of small donors,” wrote Nancy Pelosi just before the Democratic victory in the 2018 midterms. “Wealthy special interests shouldn’t be able to buy more influence than the workers, consumers and families who should be our priority in Washington.” A few weeks later, an assorted donor coalition of real estate developers, hedge fund managers, and senior corporate operatives backed Pelosi against progressive critics in her bid to become Speaker.
“Mayor Pete will not be influenced by special-interest money, and we understand that making this promise is an important part of that commitment,” read a 2019 statement from Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, which soon after found the candidate himself mounting a spirited defense of his many donations from billionaires. (Buttigieg’s postpresidential trajectory has since been largely financed by dark money.)
“Corruption, the influence of money, touches every decision that gets made in Washington,” declared Elizabeth Warren at a May 2019 campaign event. “Whatever issue brought you here today, I guarantee if there’s a decision to be made in Washington, it’s been touched, pushed, massaged, tilted over, just a little, so the folks with money do better than everyone else.” Though a pledge to reject lobbyist and super PAC money remained on her official website, Warren would ultimately stay in the race with the help of a single, nearly $15 million contribution from a wealthy California donor made through a super PAC. “If all the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in, I’ll lead the charge,” announced Warren in what was quite transparently a violation of her own pledge. “But that’s how it has to be. It can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.”
Rhetorical gymnastics of this kind are regularly used by powerful liberals to decry corporate influence peddling while simultaneously acceding to its core mechanics. Newly published reporting from Kenneth Vogel and Shane Goldmacher at the New York Times, in fact, suggests that Democrats are now actually outflanking the GOP when it comes to their reliance on dark money.
As Vogel and Goldmacher write:
For much of the last decade, Democrats complained — with a mix of indignation, frustration and envy — that Republicans and their allies were spending hundreds of millions of difficult-to-trace dollars to influence politics. “Dark money” became a dirty word, as the left warned of the threat of corruption posed by corporations and billionaires that were spending unlimited sums through loosely regulated nonprofits, which did not disclose their donors’ identities.
Then came the 2020 election. Spurred by opposition to then-President Trump, donors and operatives allied with the Democratic Party embraced dark money with fresh zeal, pulling even with and, by some measures, surpassing Republicans in 2020 spending, according to a New York Times analysis of tax filings and other data. The analysis shows that 15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with the Democratic Party spent more than $1.5 billion in 2020 — compared to roughly $900 million spent by a comparable sample of 15 of the most politically active groups aligned with the G.O.P.
It’s as bleak and dystopian a political picture as you could imagine: organized money not only buying influence on an unprecedented scale, but increasingly doing so in an atmosphere of near total secrecy, such that much of that influence can only ever be inferred while some of it escapes notice altogether. It’s also as good an occasion as any to consider the fundamental cynicism of institutional liberalism’s erstwhile critics of corporate and dark money.
There can be no doubt that 2020 served up many tough lessons for genuine left politics. But amid the darkness, there were also a few flickers of light when it came to political fundraising. Among other things, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s remarkable capacity to raise huge sums through small donations showed that it is indeed possible to reject the poisoned chalice embraced by so many liberal and conservative politicians.
The Michael Bloomberg campaign, meanwhile, helped confirm what Jeb Bush’s catastrophic effort in political performance art had already suggested: organized money may be able to buy much of the legislative process, but there really are limits on what a bottomless well of campaign cash can actually get you in terms of either grassroots enthusiasm or popular support. The charisma-challenged Bush, who had evidently expected plutocrat dollars to carry him all the way to the White House, spent just over $150 million to win three delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Seemingly hoping to demonstrate once and for all that the presidential nomination of a major party can simply be bought, Bloomberg 2020 dumped in a record $1.1 billion of the candidate’s own money — only to prove so repellent to most Democratic voters that it scored a mere fifty delegates (out of a pool of nearly four thousand) and was utterly moribund by Super Tuesday.
With plenty of help from wealthy donors and super PACs, of course, the Democratic establishment ultimately swatted down Sanders’s challenge and went on to reclaim majority control of the United States government — incidentally pledging, yet again, to get tough on the insidious influence of organized money and promising a sweeping array of liberal reforms. A year into the Joe Biden era, many if not most of these reforms now look dead on arrival, as does any serious effort to roll back the ambient corruption at the heart of America’s political system — illustrating, for the umpteenth time, that you cannot simultaneously claim to champion anything resembling a progressive political program while in a de facto coalition with the very forces ranged against it.
Taken together, the lesson in all this is that embracing America’s depraved campaign finance regime is less an ambivalent surrender to political reality than it is a conscious ideological choice. Were they actually serious about pursuing much of what they officially want, establishment Democrats could probably decide to be something other than a party aligned with corporate America and content to filter its agenda through special interests in perpetuity. As things stand, however, the liberal marriage of progressive posturing and corporate cash instead guarantees a repeat of the same old pattern: Democrats decrying the influence of big money while insisting (as they did in 2020) that they must regrettably rely on it in order to save democracy.
Until a genuinely antiestablishment current manages to succeed where Sanders failed, we can expect the tidal wave of cynicism and hypocrisy to keep on rolling — and the tyrannical grip of corporate power on American democracy to tighten with every election cycle.