Democracy in America: the money trap

Godfrey Hodgson
26 March 2007

The quarter ending on 31 March 2007 promises to blow away all previous records for political fundraising in the United States. Never has so much been raised, so early. And never has money dominated coverage of a presidential campaign, almost to the point of extinguishing discussion of such less exciting matters as the collapse of the housing market, the politicisation of the federal-justice system, prospects for healthcare and the war in Iraq.

A few days ago two Washington Post journalists, after diligent research, reported that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had raised over $1 million in a single evening twice in three days: once in the lush technology-manured pastures of the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley , and then among the lawyers and the lobbyists in a gigantic Washington conference hotel (see Anne E Kornblut & Chris Cillizza, "Candidates Stress Early Fundraising" Washington Post, 21 March 2007).

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"Can America go modest?"
(October 2001)

"After Katrina, a government adrift"
(September 2005)

" Oil and American politics" (October 2005)

"The death of American politics" (October 2005)

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"Washington: the earth moves"
(9 November 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

Clinton's rival, Senator Barack Obama and his people were at pains to say they were not competing in such heroic financial trawls, but Obama managed, as it were without trying, to pick up $1.3 million in a night.

"It's obvious", a blogger ironised, "there is no reason to have an election. The candidate with the most money wins the election. Cancel the election; set a date - say the end of July 2008 - and whoever has the most money is the winner. That is how it will end up anyway, and we don't have to put up with politicians telling us how they have a new way of doing things".

The dollar danger

Money is becoming a serious problem for politics everywhere. British, French, German and Italian political parties have all had more or less disgraceful scandals about fundraising. The problem is an order of magnitude more threatening to democracy in the United States, however, and not simply because of the large aggregate sums of money involved in the world's wealthiest country. There are at least four reasons to see money - the need for it, the price paid for raising it, and its influence on politics and government - as a threat to American democracy itself:

  • Politicians, especially in the House of Representatives with its two-yearly elections, but also in the Senate and in the presidential process, now spend almost all their time cajoling people into paying for their campaigns. By way of evidence, the Washington Post piece mentioned above took it for granted.
  • While some citizens donate, mostly small, amounts of money because of their commitment to a candidate or to his or her ideas, most donors want something in return for their cash. The lobbyists and professional fundraisers who increasingly bundle together small donations are even more like to want a quid pro quo. Sometimes they want favours for an interest group or for themselves. Sometimes they are paying for access. Either way, the workings of democracy are tarnished, and often corrupted (see "American politics: corrosion by the dollar", 6 November 2006).
  • The power of lobbyists, and their ability to intervene between the people and their leaders, have never been greater. There are widespread suspicions that the investigation of the full ramifications of the influence of Jack Abramoff, the convicted lobbyist who was close to several of the key personalities in Republican Washington, including the president's consigliere Karl Rove, the administration's favourite domestic adviser Grover Norquist, and the powerful former Texas congressman Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, has been delayed because the administration is afraid of what might come out.

The Washington Post has just published a series about the fabled influence of Gerald Cassidy, a lobbyist on a scale that has not been seen since the days of the original railroad lobby in the 1870s; the Cassidy firm has replied with glossy internet ads claiming "leadership".

The big Washington lobbying firms along K-Street, many of them run by former congressmen, have never had it so good. The going salary for a Capitol Hill staffer who goes to work "downtown" is now $300,000 a year; remuneration for his or her boss would run in the millions.

  • The presidential campaign has started earlier than ever. The primary elections, too, will be earlier in 2008. Where in the past the process of sorting out "available" candidates began in the tiny state of New Hampshire, and later in Iowa and South Carolina, now there is to be something close to a national primary, with the populous states - California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Missouri among them - all thinking of voting on the same day in early February. California, with 15% of the nation's population, has already announced that it will be doing so.

The obstacles to reform

Only candidates with campaign budgets the size of hedge funds will be able to buy TV time in a dozen major markets simultaneously. No wonder journalists cover the prospects of candidates almost entirely in terms of their funding. No wonder, too, several promising candidates have already pulled out, citing lack of money as their reason.

Although political campaigns spend money on many other things - professional staff, consultants, rent, telephones, volunteers, posters, mailing shots and much besides - the biggest single item, especially in the later stages of a campaign, is television advertising. Although political ads on TV are allowed in some other countries, nowhere else do they cost a fraction of what they cost in America. It is this, above all, that explains why campaigns in the last presidential election year already came to more than $2 billion dollars, and why the spend in 2008 may be twice as much.

Defenders of the status quo are quick to counter that this amounts to no more than a pizza for every man, woman and child in the country. They compare the cost of politics unfavourably with what Americans spend on various other things. That is not the point. Money spent on canned soup or soda does not affect the nature and outcomes of the political system. Money spent on TV ads most assuredly does.

There have been attempts to control the cost of political campaigns since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. They intensified after the Watergate scandals of 1972-74. Most recently the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act ("McCain-Feingold") of 2002 sought to close the most flagrant loophole, the use of "soft money"; cash, that is, given not to a candidate but to a cause that helped a candidate or candidates.

The record of these legislative attempts at reform has not been reassuring. Many Americans simply assume that politicians and their staff will always find a way round whatever regulations are placed in the way of political spending and fundraising.

Another obstacle is the second amendment to the constitution, no less, which forbids legislation abridging the freedom of speech. More specifically the Supreme Court decided, in Buckley v Valeo in 1974, that buying television ads is a form of freedom of speech, and therefore protected by the amendment. To European minds, that decision, by protecting the ability of rich men to buy influence and so cancel out the votes of many thousands of poor men and women, is actively anti-democratic. But that is not the way most Americans see it.

There may be few individuals who can give a million dollars to a favourite candidate, but many Americans like to think that one day they might be among them. True, on the evidence of blogs like the one I quoted at the beginning of this article, a growing number of cynics are unpersuaded by the case for Buckley v Valeo. But then legislators, hard-pressed to scrape together the money for the ad that, they fondly hope, will win their re-election, are the last to press for reform - unless indeed the people who want to influence legislators are even more reluctant to do so.

These last few years, we have heard a good deal from American administrations, and from the American media, about bringing American democracy to the world. But democracy begins at home. The spectacle of well-heeled gladiators pouring money on an imperial scale into abusing one another from the little screen in 2008 is not likely to encourage other countries to imitate this particular aspect of American democracy.

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