SAVING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
This blog appears every Thursday and on other days in reaction to events. My premise is that American democracy is in urgent danger of destruction – hollowed out across decades by the flood of campaign cash, and now under sustained assault by Donald Trump and the Republican Party: partisan gerrymandering; voter suppression; habitual lying to the voters about climate change and other crucial issues; and a president with nakedly authoritarian instincts who bridles against all restraints on his power. I analyze these problems and suggest solutions - ways to save the world's great democratic experiment. The blog also provides other political analysis, especially of the 2020 presidential race.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, bemoan the power of big money in American politics. Yet all they offer in the way of a solution is futile calls for a constitutional amendment, or to “overturn Citizens United,” which is an impossibility now that Kavanaugh has replaced Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Making this silly discourse almost surreal is the fact that a workable path to campaign finance reform does exist and has even been introduced as a bill into the House of Representatives.
I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s “Democracy Dollars Act,” H.R. 7306, introduced in December 2018. Khanna’s bill was in part inspired by the book Voting With Dollars, by two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres (Yale, 2002). Khanna’s bill creates a novel public financing mechanism for federal elections, one which probably cannot be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, because it does not limit political giving or spending, which the Court deems a form of free speech. Presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang have proposed similar reforms. Under this new mechanism, the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of “Democracy Dollars,” say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use. Instead, they assign this campaign cash to the candidates or political committees of their choice. As of 2016 there were about 200 million registered voters in the United States. At $50 per voter, that translates to ten billion dollars in public campaign financing. By way of perspective, the 2016 federal elections, Congressional and presidential together, cost about $6.5 billion in private donations and spending. Democracy Dollars thus offer a meaningful counterweight to the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics, making our political system more truly democratic. Indeed, this reform would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics.
No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system of public financing, and very many would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground. But then they could opt into the Democracy Dollars system, receiving public financing in return for forswearing all future private donations. Any candidate who did not do so, and chose to rely exclusively on private money, would be fiercely and justly accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of the public interest. In this way the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics would be dramatically reduced. At present, wealthy donors pay the piper and call the tune. They determine which candidates are viable and available for the public to vote for, and they narrow the range of policies which these candidates can embrace once they take office. But the Democracy Dollars Act would turn the voters into the donors – collectively even bigger donors than the fearsome Koch brothers. It would strike a powerful blow for the restoration of American democracy.
Democrats should make the Democracy Dollars Act the single most important issue of the 2020 elections, not least because without deep reform of campaign finance, every other item on the Democratic agenda will be thwarted. We can’t address climate change as long as the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. We can’t fix health care as long as insurance companies and big pharma have so much of Congress in their pockets. We can’t repair our infrastructure, fund universal health care, relieve the burden of college debt, address economic inequality, or tackle climate change without trillions upon trillions of dollars in new revenue. This revenue can only come from sharply higher taxes on the wealthy – levels of taxation that they haven’t paid since the years of World War II and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. As long as politicians rely on millionaires and billionaires to fund their campaigns, they can’t touch tax increases with a ten-foot pole. And there is a second reason why Democrats need to move the Democracy Dollars Act to the top of their 2020 agenda.
The Democracy Dollars Act is part of an important, larger pattern that has escaped the media’s notice: Democrats consistently champion reforms aiming to strengthen American democracy, while Republican politicians increasingly turn their back on democratic values. Through partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them. They undermine democracy by lying to the voters, for example about climate change, or by saying that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. Worst of all, Republican politicians unfailingly support a president who displays blatantly authoritarian inclinations, who bridles at all restraints on his authority, who calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” who dangerously politicizes the civil service, and who routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution.
A look at the Democrats presents a very different picture, especially as revealed in the first bill introduced in the House this year, the For the People Act. Democrats champion campaign finance reform. They strive to make it easier for Americans to vote, not more difficult, and they propose to end partisan gerrymandering by establishing apolitical commissions to redraw electoral districts. The Democracy Dollars Act should be the centerpiece of Democratic strategy in 2020: to present this election as a battle to save American democracy, which at present is under greater threat than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Such a strategy would not only do justice to the urgency of the present moment. It would also be shrewd politics, because it offers the only message that might unify voters across party lines. Many Americans will reject Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but every American – or so I hope – still believes in democracy.
The third Democratic presidential debate, held last Thursday, is not notable for what the candidates said, but rather for what they did not say, for the problems and solutions that remained unmentioned.
In the first place, no one on the stage did justice to the urgency of the present moment. Climate change alone represents a greater threat to human civilization than that presented by Adolf Hitler and his war machine in World War II. And on top of that threat comes the backlog of serious problems that plague the United States here at home: our crumbling infrastructure; the growing economic inequality that strains our social fabric; the loss of upward social mobility, which threatens to divide our society into hereditary socioeconomic castes; the absurd cost of our health care system, which eats up twice as much of our GDP as it does in other advanced societies, and doesn’t even give all our citizens health insurance. And standing above all these problems, and blocking their solution, the dysfunction of our political system, which has largely ceased to be a democracy, hollowed out from within by campaign cash and now under sustained assault by the Republican Party (partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc.) and a president with blatantly authoritarian leanings who routinely violates the spirit of our Constitution. The challenges we face, collectively, are the moral, political and economic equivalent of total war, and no one in our political class even acknowledges this obvious truth.
Secondly, although Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders alluded to the corruption of our political system by big money, no one talked about a possible solution, except for, of all people, Andrew Yang. Yang mentioned the idea of “Democracy Dollars,” which has even been introduced into our Congress as a bill in December 2018 by Rep. Ro Khanna. Under this novel public financing mechanism, the government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could then assign this campaign cash to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion of public financing, dwarfing even the $6.5 billion spent on the federal elections of 2016. Democracy Dollars could break the stranglehold of big donors on our political life and make this country a democracy again. Why is no one besides Yang talking about this? To be sure, we can understand why, say, Nancy Pelosi can’t make this a leading issue. She’s the party’s top fundraiser and gets all this money from millionaires and billionaires. Talking about Democracy Dollars would, to say the least, complicate her conversation with her donors. But Warren and Sanders don’t have that problem. They rely primarily on small donations. Why aren’t they making this reform their central issue?
The third unmentioned elephant in the room was taxes. To her credit, Elizabeth Warren has grasped the nettle of taxes, with her excellent proposal of a wealth tax. But even this idea doesn’t go nearly far enough. To address the challenges that we face, and that we must lead the rest of the world in addressing (e.g. climate change), we need trillions upon trillions of dollars of new revenue. This money must come from the people who have it, in the form of massively higher taxes on the wealthy, a level of taxation that we last saw in this country during World War II and the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. (Under Eisenhower, the top marginal income tax rate was 91 per cent.) We need top marginal income tax rates of 70% or even 80%, the rates many economists consider ideal. We need estate taxes that are positively confiscatory above the level of the current $10 million exemption. We need Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. And we need to seriously consider ending the preferential treatment of capital gains on stocks and bonds, which benefits only a small sliver of the American population. Needless to say, however, as long as millionaires and billionaires fund the election campaigns of most of our politicians, no serious discussion of taxes will be possible in this country.
In telling you all of this, I am reminded of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes. Our entire political class is marveling at the wonderful, double-breasted Armani suit that the emperor is wearing, and I’m the eight-year-old kid who speaks up and says the emperor is naked. Is anybody listening?
The Democratic presidential field is badly divided between progressives and moderates, and none of the top three candidates is likely to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. It seems probable that no candidate will secure a first-ballot majority of delegates in advance of the Democratic convention next summer. The choice of candidate may therefore have to be brokered at the convention. For several reasons, Pete Buttigieg may be the strongest contender.
The latest Quinnipiac poll, from August 28, shows the Democratic field almost evenly divided between moderates and progressives: 32% of respondents favored Joe Biden, a percentage slightly outmatched by the combined totals of Elizabeth Warren (19%) and Bernie Sanders (15%). Exacerbating the party’s divisions, and making them more dangerous for Democrats’ prospects next year, is that every one of the front runners is a fatally weak candidate.
At 76, Joe Biden is too old, and his age is really showing. It shows in his gaffes. It shows in his scarcity at public events on the campaign trail. It shows in his feeble voice and palpable lack of energy on the stump. He visibly lacks enthusiasm for the campaign and struggles to articulate why he wants to be President. Biden also has no message, no vision for America’s future. His “message” is nostalgia for the Obama administration, a time when Americans were so alienated from the political system that they took the ultimate gamble, choosing change at any price by putting a moral monster in the White House. Finally, Biden clings to a fantasy of bipartisanship, of “working across the aisle,” when there’s no one on the other side willing to compromise on anything of substance.
At 77, Bernie Sanders is also too old, but that may be the least of his problems. For reasons that may be clear only to him, he insists on describing himself as a “socialist.” This label alone will be enough to ensure a Trump victory. While Americans show much confusion about what policies constitute socialism, in general they clearly favor capitalism over socialism. For example, a recent Monmouth University poll showed that 57% of Americans think that socialism is incompatible with American values, while only 29% see it as compatible.
Sanders has also staked out positions that are too far to the left for independent and moderate Republican voters to stomach. Elizabeth Warren has joined him in some of these positions, making her also a weak candidate. Their greatest mistake has been their insistence on an immediate transition to “Medicare for All.” They propose to eliminate all private health insurance, including the employer-based plans that serve almost 160 million Americans. Sanders and Warren want to replace all private plans with a single government program, and raise taxes to pay for it.
While many Americans seem to like the phrase “Medicare for All,” polling data show that they don’t understand what it means, and their support evaporates when they learn it means losing the insurance they have today. While a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows a slim majority of Americans favoring “Medicare-for-all,” it also shows that 67% of these respondents believe that they will get to keep their current health insurance under such a plan. A February Hill-HarrisX survey showed that only about one in ten registered voters favor a Medicare-for-all plan if it means abolishing private insurance. Their health insurance plan, by itself, is probably enough to cost Sanders or Warren the general election.
So if none of these weak candidates has secured a first-ballot majority come next July 13, why should Pete Buttigieg get the nod? Partly because he is the ideal compromise candidate, progressive enough for Warren and Sanders supporters, but crucially favoring a public option rather than immediate transition to single-payer healthcare. He is unfailingly likeable, fabulously articulate, and intellectually impressive without talking down to the voters. Buttigieg has made no enemies among the other candidates, scrupulously refraining from attacking them. His youth and homosexuality make him a historic candidate who would excite the party’s activist base. Although he currently takes only 5% in the national polls of likely Democratic primary voters, he has reached double digits in some recent Iowa polls, and he was the top fundraiser for the second quarter, taking in almost $25 million. He can afford a robust primary campaign that may bring him into the convention with a respectable number of delegates, enough to position him as the compromise candidate. This may be a long-shot scenario, but it is worth considering.
Long before Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, soldiers of the Union Army understood the war’s meaning, and articulated what was at stake in the conflict. As historian James McPherson has shown, we see their understanding in the letters they wrote to their loved ones back home. “I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend,” wrote a private in the 33rd Massachusetts Regiment in 1862, “and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom.” A private in the 27th Connecticut affirmed that if “traitors” destroyed the Union that cost “our forefathers long years of blood” to establish, “all the hope and confidence in the capacity of men for self government will be lost.” In 1863 a private in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry wrote that he had not expected the war to last so long, but no matter how much longer it took, it must be fought “for the great principles of liberty and self government at stake, for should we fail, the onward march of liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.” These letters could have been written in only one country on earth, and that is the United States of America.
In this country, democracy and patriotism are one and the same thing, although far too many Americans have forgotten this essential fact of our history. Most Americans, it is safe to say, would agree with the claim that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. It is also safe to say that many would have difficulty articulating exactly what constitutes our claim to greatness. If you listen to Donald Trump and his Republican allies, you might think that our greatness consists of the size of our economy and the deadliness of our military. And yes, we have every right to value our economic strength, and a duty to honor the brave men and women who serve us in uniform. But this Trumpian, Republican version of patriotism is as impoverished as it is misleading. And it reflects the degree to which the Republican Party has drifted away from the democratic values that are the proper essence of American patriotism.
We are great because our country was the birthplace of modern democracy, and because, since the Civil War if not before, we have been the world’s foremost champion of democracy. More than one million of our young men, in great wars and small, gave their lives for freedom and democracy. As McPherson has demonstrated, even Confederate soldiers saw themselves as the descendants of the founding fathers and as champions of democracy. Their understanding of democracy was perverted, because it included the “right” to enslave others, but in their own misguided minds they were fighting for American democratic patriotism.
And yes, at times our government has misused and cynically exploited the democratic patriotism of the American people. Our country has fought sordid, unjustifiable wars that were sold to the voters as wars for democracy. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did this in Vietnam, just as George Bush and Dick Cheney did so in Iraq. But that is no excuse for abandoning the equivalence of democracy and patriotism which defines our nation and makes us unique among all the political communities, all the countries and empires of world history. Democracy has been our national mission, and it has given us a glorious history.
Today, our glorious history sometimes seems like no more than a fading memory, a reason for nostalgia rather than self-confident pride. For in the land of its birth, the democratic form of government is on the ropes and in very real danger of extinction. Part of the problem is how we finance our election campaigns. Across the last four decades, in a steady arms race between politicians, the cost of campaigning for public office has grown by leaps and bounds. More and more, politicians spend their time raising money, going on bended knee to millionaires and billionaires, “dialing for dollars” and holding fundraising dinners charging $5,000 or more per plate. Ill-considered decisions by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts – especially Citizens United (2010) and Speech Now (2010) – have allowed individuals and corporations to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in “independent spending” favoring or opposing the candidates of their choice.
The corporations and wealthy individuals who give all this money expect something in return: they expect Presidents and the Congress, Governors and state legislators, to do their bidding – to lower their taxes, deregulate their industries, and allow them to pollute the environment and contribute to climate change. And in fact, these well-heeled donors get what they pay for. They get a rigged political system that enriches them and neglects the needs and wishes of ninety-nine percent of the American people. The donors get politicians who serve them instead of serving the public.
Not only has the flood of campaign cash produced bad and inefficient government. It has also made a joke of our democracy, and therefore of our patriotism. A central principle of democracy is political equality, the notion that every citizen should have a roughly equal voice in how the country is governed. This principle has often been summarized in the phrase “one-person-one-vote.” Today, instead, we have a system in which one billionaire controls the equivalent of a million votes or more, by choosing the candidates for whom the rest of us get to vote, and by narrowing the range of policies these candidates can embrace once they are in office. Instead of democracy, rule by the people, we have plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. And big money is not the only grave threat to our democracy, the only source of damage to our democratic ideals.
The decades-long erosion of our democracy by campaign cash has not affected the two major parties symmetrically. The Democrats, though complicit in the corrupt system of campaign finance, have still held on to democratic values. The Republicans, in contrast, have in substantial part turned their backs on democracy, and have sacrificed democratic principles to the goal of winning, of clinging to power and rewarding the wealthy donors who put them there. They pack the judiciary with radically conservative judges vetted by the Federalist Society. Stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat was only the most conspicuous part of this process. Republican politicians actively strive to disenfranchise voters – by aggressive partisan gerrymandering and various measures designed to take the vote away from Americans who might not support them. They, and their allies on the Supreme Court, staunchly oppose all forms of campaign finance reform. They actively want the wealthiest Americans to dominate our politics. They also undermine democracy by lying to the voters. They lie about climate change. For decades, since Ronald Reagan, they have lied by claiming that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. They lie by never speaking against their leader, President Trump, who, as of June 10 this year, had made over 10,700 false or misleading claims in the 869 days he had been in office. Finally, Mr. Trump has blatantly authoritarian leanings, bridles at all restraints on his power, and routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution, all without contradiction from within his party. All these Republican actions are destructive of democracy, and therefore unpatriotic in the deepest meaning of the term.
None of the foregoing is meant to imply that Republican politicians lack patriotism. Surely they love the United States as much as Democrats do. But they have forgotten the most important reason for loving our country, they have forgotten that in America, democracy and patriotism are one and the same thing. It is high time for Democrats to call Republicans out on the undemocratic, unpatriotic nature of their actions and policies.
Democrats champion campaign finance reform. They strive to end partisan gerrymandering. They want to make it easier for Americans to vote, not more difficult. And yes, like politicians everywhere, Democrats fudge, spin, and evade difficult questions from journalists. But by and large, they don’t tell outright lies. As their first step upon taking control of the House this past January, Democrats passed the aptly named For the People Act, a road map for restoring our democracy. The bill makes it much easier for Americans to vote, shuts down partisan gerrymandering, offers as much campaign finance reform as the Supreme Court will allow, and tightens regulations on lobbyists. Democratic politicians have become the champions of democracy in this country, while Republicans have become its enemies.
The 2020 election is about many issues. It is very much about health care reform. It is about economic inequality. Immigration will play a conspicuous role in the political discourse during the year ahead. So will climate change, though that topic has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves. And yet, compared to the ill health and vulnerability of our democracy, these are second-order issues. If we don’t protect and heal our democracy, we will not be able to solve any of these other problems. And democracy goes to the heart of who we are: it makes us Americans, and justifies the leadership that we could provide to the rest of the human species as the world navigates the perilous decades that lie ahead. Democrats should make this election, first and foremost, about restoring our badly wounded democracy. To do so would be to do justice to the urgency of the present moment. It would also be good politics. Not every American will favor single-payer health care or the Green New Deal. But all Americans – or so I hope – still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. American democracy faces a greater threat than at any time in our history since the Civil War. It is time for Democrats to step forward and say so.
Donald Trump made the destructive role of money in politics central to his argument to the American people. He ridiculed his opponents as “puppets” of donors. He said that only he could serve the American people, because he (allegedly) financed his own campaign and did not depend on donors and lobbyists. Did many people vote for him because of this message? I don’t propose to say, but this idea deserves a closer look than it’s gotten. Throughout the campaign, Trump hit the theme of money in politics again and again. Pretty consistently, the media underreported this part of his message.
Trump’s remarks in the second presidential debate, and the media’s non-reaction to his message about campaign cash, support my claims.
Trump mentioned money in politics a few minutes past the halfway mark in the debate. Trump did it to change the subject from his tax returns, but it reinforced his apt observation that Clinton failed to answer a voter’s question about her sincerity. A hacked Clinton campaign email dated January 25, 2016, released two days earlier by Wiki Leaks, quoted one of her highly paid speeches, in which Clinton complained that in politics it was necessary to maintain distinct public and private positions on issues.
The voter, as quoted by the moderator Martha Raddatz, asked “is it OK for politicians to be two-faced?”
Clinton dodged the question by praising Lincoln’s tactical agility in achieving passage of the 13th Amendment. Then she changed the subject to Russia’s meddling in the American presidential campaign by giving hacked emails to Wiki Leaks, charged that the Russian government did so in order to help Trump win the election, and finished by saying we would understand Trump’s own motivations – and his possible ties to Russia – if he would release his income tax returns.
Trump got some laughs by mocking Clinton for blaming her “lie” on Abraham Lincoln, and concluded by saying: “…I pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. Many of her friends took bigger deductions. Warren Buffett took a massive deduction. Soros, who’s a friend of hers, took a massive deduction. Many of the people that are giving her all this money that she can do many more commercials than me gave her — took massive deductions.”
Trump matched Clinton’s evasion with his own, but he did put his finger on a central issue: cash buys influence in American politics because politicians need lots of money to campaign for office, for example by paying for television advertisements. Trump hammered away at this point several more times, yet Clinton never responded to this argument, nor did any of the major print media comment on it.
Anderson Cooper pivoted from Trump’s comment on Clinton’s donors by inviting an audience member to ask a question about taxes: “what specific tax provisions will you change to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes?”
Trump responded by charging that Clinton’s donors had bought her support for a tax code that suited them:
Well, one thing I’d do is get rid of carried interest. One of the greatest provisions for people like me, to be honest with you, I give up a lot when I run, because I knock out the tax code. And she could have done this years ago, by the way. She’s a United States — she was a United States senator. She complains that Donald Trump took advantage of the tax code. Well, why didn’t she change it? Why didn’t you change it when you were a senator? The reason you didn’t is that all your friends take the same advantage that I do. And I do. You have provisions in the tax code that, frankly, we could change. But you wouldn’t change it, because all of these people gave you the money so you can take negative ads on Donald Trump.
Trump is the worst kind of hypocrite. He had long since forfeited a valid claim to have self-financed his campaign, just as his “tax plan” centered on massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. He didn’t propose any reforms of campaign finance. Since his election he has shown how insincere he was about money in politics – big donors in his cabinet and huge conflicts with his business interests. But hypocritical or not, Trump did call the fatal flaw in our democracy by name.
Cooper asked Trump whether he had used a business loss of $916 million as a write off to avoid paying income tax. “Of course I do,” Trump replied. “Of course I do. And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs.” After Cooper rephrased his question, Trump continued in this vein:
A lot of my — excuse me, Anderson — a lot of my write- off was depreciation and other things that Hillary as a senator allowed. And she’ll always allow it, because the people that give her all this money, they want it. That’s why.
See, I understand the tax code better than anybody that’s ever run for president. Hillary Clinton — and it’s extremely complex — Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these provisions, including they want the carried interest provision, which is very important to Wall Street people. But they really want the carried interest provision, which I believe Hillary’s leaving. Very interesting why she’s leaving carried interest.
But I will tell you that, number one, I pay tremendous numbers of taxes. I absolutely used it. And so did Warren Buffett and so did George Soros and so did many of the other people that Hillary is getting money from. Now, I won’t mention their names, because they’re rich, but they’re not famous. So we won’t make them famous.
Money in politics came up again in the final minutes of the debate. An audience member asked what would guide the candidates’ choice of Supreme Court justices. Clinton made her only comment for the evening about money in politics: the Court should overturn Citizens United and the justices should understand that big donors did not deserve an outsized influence in politics.
Now, Hillary mentioned something about contributions just so you understand. So I will have in my race more than $100 million put in — of my money, meaning I’m not taking all of this big money from all of these different corporations like she’s doing. What I ask is this.
So I’m putting in more than — by the time it’s finished, I’ll have more than $100 million invested. Pretty much self-funding money. We’re raising money for the Republican Party, and we’re doing tremendously on the small donations, $61 average or so.
I ask Hillary, why doesn’t — she made $250 million by being in office. She used the power of her office to make a lot of money. Why isn’t she funding, not for $100 million, but why don’t you put $10 million or $20 million or $25 million or $30 million into your own campaign?
It’s $30 million less for special interests that will tell you exactly what to do and it would really, I think, be a nice sign to the American public. Why aren’t you putting some money in? You have a lot of it. You’ve made a lot of it because of the fact that you’ve been in office. Made a lot of it while you were secretary of state, actually. So why aren’t you putting money into your own campaign? I’m just curious.
Trump made money in politics one of his most important arguments in the debate, and only once did Clinton respond to it. And the mainstream print media hardly mentioned it at all – not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or The Atlantic, while the Washington Post highlighted only two short quotes on this topic, commenting them dismissively, in its annotated version of the debate’s full transcript. But did the voters notice, and did this message from Trump motivate many to choose him over Clinton? It’s a possibility worth considering.
A hallmark of our post-Citizens United politics is that super-donors explicitly affirm their right to determine how parties and candidates act.
More than five weeks after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democratic politicians and operatives are still reeling from the shock. None have systematically examined why Hillary lost, and how a grotesque buffoon could have become our President. Luckily, or maybe not, the party’s donors have stepped up to the plate.
As reported yesterday in Politico,
the wealthy Democrats who helped pump over $1 billion into Clinton’s losing effort have been urging their local finance staffers, state party officials, and campaign aides to provide a more thorough explanation of what went wrong. With no dispassionate, centralized analysis of how Clinton failed so spectacularly, they insist, how can they be expected to keep contributing to the party?
On one level this is good – somebody has to do it. It is also unremarkable. Mega-donors in both parties have been asserting their influence ever more brazenly. They pay the piper so they expect to call the tune. Or as one fundraiser said about Clinton’s defeat: “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not putting another fucking dime in until someone tells me what just happened.’”
I don’t mean this as a criticism of politicians or of donors. Overwhelmingly, these are patriotic, well-intentioned people. They are working within the realities of a system they did not create. But is this democracy? What happened to “one-person-one-vote”? This is much more like one-person-one-million-votes.
2016 – Year of the Super-Donor
As revealed by the Wall Street Journal, by mid-October some $370 million had been raised for super PACs in the presidential campaign. About 85% of this money was given to support Hillary Clinton. Of this $370 million, nearly three-fifths – $213 million – came from just sixty individuals. This takes the impact of big money on our politics to a new level.
In crafting strategy and making policy, politicians have had to consider the wishes of thousands of individuals who each “maxed out” their individual contribution of about $5,000 to each candidate’s campaign. They talked to their bundlers, and got some sense of what some donors were thinking. But now they hear directly from individual donors who give money not in thousands but rather in millions. Our leaders learn quite precisely what actions will please or displease their powerful patrons. Some donors are active enough – Sheldon Adelson comes most obviously to mind – to make or break a candidate.
Trump hasn’t finished choosing his cabinet and already four major donors or fundraisers have gotten the nod: Willbur Ross as Commerce Secretary, Betsy DeVos for Education, Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, and Andy Puzder as Labor Secretary. Although Trump has taken rewarding donors to a new level, the pattern is bi-partisan: Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was Obama’s national finance chair for the 2008 election.
Some major Democratic donors, impatient with the party, are thinking about running for office on their own account: J.B. Pritzker, for Governor of Illinois, John Morgan for Governor of Florida, and Tom Steyer for Governor of California. These are talented people with a lot to offer. But should wealth be an automatic ticket to viability as a candidate?
A Remedy: Turn Voters into Donors
No one talks much about campaign finance reform these days, and for good reasons. Republicans oppose any reform. So at least until 2018, and probably until 2020, reform is dead on arrival at the federal level.
Just as daunting, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority – soon to be resurrected by the addition of a Trump appointee – holds that money given or spent in politics is free speech, protected by the First Amendment. They’ve struck down just about every law that limits campaign cash. But there is another way.
Two Yale Law professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, devised a solution in their book Voting with Dollars (Yale, 2002). Simplifying their approach, it works like this. The federal government gives every registered voter a campaign cash account. Every year each voter gets, say, thirty dollars. The voters then go on line and assign their campaign cash to the parties and candidates of their choice.
This public financing mechanism, instead of limiting political speech, increases its volume and multiplies its sources. It would be a clear victory for First Amendment values. So long as no new limits are placed on private donations, even the badly politicized Roberts court would find it difficult to strike it down.
At sixty dollars per two-year cycle and 200 million registered voters, that’s $12 billion. This surpasses or nearly equals the total spending on state and federal elections in 2012. (The uncertainty comes from the lack of reliable numbers on independent spending at the state level.)
A New Campaign Issue for Democrats?
A federal law creating this mechanism will likely be impossible for the next four years. But Democratic-led states could create their own versions of it, which would be useful test cases. And Democrats could also make an issue of it in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
If we want to regain the ground we’ve lost during the past eight years, we need to offer the voters something more compelling than just resisting Trump, as important as that work is. Robust public financing would be real change – a big step toward restoring democracy. And if there’s one thing voters wanted above all else in 2016, it was change, including change in a political system that everyone knows is broken.
Trump Attacks, Clinton Stays Mum
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders vehemently attacked Hillary Clinton for doing what pretty much every politician does: take money from big donors and serve them instead of the public. For example, Trump hit this theme hard in the second presidential debate, at 54:30 minutes and at 1 hour and 24 minutes into the program. In a later post I will argue that Trump and Sanders owed much of their success to attacking big money in politics.
Today, I suggest that Clinton should have faced this question squarely instead of avoiding it.
Hillary stayed silent because she depended on her donors. But her silence, like that of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and everyone else other than Sanders and Trump, deepens the voters’ contempt for their political leaders. Is there an honest and politically useful answer to this painful question? I say yes.
An Honest Answer? She Could Have Said…
Trump claimed that he did not depend on donors and financed his own campaign. That was only partly true, but it’s almost beside the point: the Representatives and Senators he needs to support his program took the big money when they ran for office, so Trump will be just as hog-tied by special interests as Sanders or Clinton would have been had they won.
So why vote for Clinton over Trump? First, because unlike Trump she is qualified for the job. Hillary understands the political game, and has the experience, skills and connections to get the best possible deal for the voters within the narrow limits imposed by the money-driven political system we have today.
Our Donors Are Better than Theirs
Second, the donors who give to Clinton and other Democrats are politically more liberal, or at least more centrist, than Republican donors. Unlike the Koch brothers, Democratic donors have some sympathy for Americans who are not rich. They recognize that the country cannot prosper if the needs of most Americans are ignored. It is terrible that all politicians are beholden to donors, but at least Democratic donors are more enlightened and less selfish than the G.O.P.’s donors.
Third, unlike Trump and the G.O.P., Clinton and many Democrats want to change this undemocratic system and get money out of politics. In particular, Clinton would have appointed Supreme Court justices who might reverse Citizens United and other bad decisions which block limits on campaign cash. Trump will do the opposite.
Fourth, throughout her career Hillary has shown her commitment to social justice and to improving the lot of all Americans. Working for the Children’s Defense Fund shows her sincerity, as did her attempt to establish universal health care in 1993-1994. Trump, in contrast, is an economic and sexual predator, while as a candidate he advocated more tax cuts for the wealthy.
Honesty Was Exciting in 2016
So the honest answer Clinton could have given is also a depressing answer. It means saying that the political system is broken. One consequence of this broken system is that Hillary – like every other politician – serves two masters, the voters and the donors. This limits what she can do for the voters, and often forces her to be two-faced.
But at least Clinton dislikes this broken system and wants to fix it. And because she has the skill and experience to work the system, because her donors are better than the G.O.P.’s donors, and because her heart is in the right place, she will get the best possible result for the voters within the limits imposed by our broken system.
This bleak answer to a hard question may not strike us as inspiring, but actually it might have inspired voters, because this answer is honest. The American people, in this election year, craved honesty more than anything else. Honesty about money in politics (or the appearance of honesty in Trump’s case) helped fuel the wholly unpredicted and meteoric rise of the only candidates who generated real enthusiasm in the electorate, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.