Alright, I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t we done talking politics yet?” No, we’re not. The election is over, but that doesn’t mean the political conversation has to shut down. And one of the most pervasive issues we all need to discuss is money in politics.
A lot of people probably heard this phrase during the election, most likely from Bernie Sanders, but what does it mean? “Money in politics” refers to the ways politicians fund election campaigns. If you want to run for office, you need money. On the surface, that’s not inherently a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when you find out that the money often comes from shady sources.
The first source of money for campaigns is from smaller donor contributions—a.k.a., people like you. Anyone can donate money to their favorite politicians with a limit of $2,600. It’s normal, it’s completely fine, and it’s the way democracy should work.
But that’s not the way it happens. We now get to Source #2: big donors. Billionaires, large corporations and other special interest groups find ways to get around laws and pay big money to politicians.
This is a problem. Think about it: if a politician gets hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars from one donor, they’re going to bend toward the will of that donor over people that actually voted for them. To continue receiving support from those who will provide funding, politicians pass laws that help special interests and get rid of ones that don’t.
If this sounds like bribery, that’s because it is. But guess what? It’s legal! Thanks to the Supreme Court. In 2010, they passed ruling known as Citizens United. They essentially said that corporations are people and therefore have the same rights as individuals; since money is speech, corporations have first amendment rights to “speak” as much as they want with their money. If this sounds ridiculous to you, then welcome to the club!
There are still some restrictions on how much money politicians can accept, but of course, they have also found a way around that. It’s called a Super PAC. These are independent groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money. Technically, they can’t directly donate to politicians, but they can help campaigns. For example, they can create and run campaign ads. Super PACs do have to report their donations and who they come from, but they also accept money from “dark money” nonprofits, who aren’t required to report their donors.
Let’s talk about why you should care. The number of people in the United States that have this kind of money to donate to politicians is very small, but nonetheless those few make huge impacts on policies. That is not democracy. Democracy means that people—not special interests—ultimately have the power in government. Getting money out of politics means compromising democracy.
How do we do this? There are actually several ways. One way is small donor reform. An example of this would be a system that requires the government to match whatever a candidate raises at a certain ratio. This system encourages candidates to rely more on small donors.
On a larger scale, another solution would be to pass an amendment or a Supreme Court ruling overturning Citizens United. Since the president appoints Supreme Court justices, I’d say the latter is almost impossible at the present time—not that an amendment is much easier. Congress is not going to do it all on their own. Two thirds of the states, however, can call for a convention to propose an amendment. It then has to be ratified (confirmed) by three-fourths of the states. It’s a lofty goal for sure, especially given the political climate, but if you care about democracy, it’s worth fighting for.