Democracy on the line: Trump and the future of super PACs

After a feverish election campaign, will Democrats and Republicans respond to the rise of super PAC mega-donors?

Faatimah Saarah Monawvil
12 November 2016

Press Association/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. All rights reserved.Throughout his campaign, 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has focused on the notion that the US political system is “rigged by big donors.” In fact, this was one of Trump’s main points of attack against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Follow the money,” Trump repeatedly ordered American voters. But one look at the scope of super PAC influence during the 2016 election illustrates a picture very different from the one Trump painted.

The president-elect has a valid point on the undue influence of large donations on the democratic election process. Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and labour unions – and later, individuals – to spend unlimited sums of money on elections as long as they are independent from the candidates, the ensuing super PACs and the influence of the megadonors behind them have become a cornerstone of election fundraising.

Super PACs spent over $1.1 billion  during this election cycle.

Super PACs spent over $1.1 billion during this election cycle. The problem here is motivation. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reports that the goal behind these super PACs and megadonors who fund elections is generally leverage – often leverage to explain or gain access to a particular case, in hopes it will receive preferential treatment. These donations, then, thwart the democratic process by placing those with the money and power to influence in a position where they have the ability to do exactly that.

These large streams of money that run through the political sphere belittle the key democratic values behind the 'one vote, one voice' framework of the American electoral process. Politicians run the risk of becoming less accountable and responsive to voters if their ties to financers become too close or too necessary. Well-administered democratic elections are meaningless to democracy if the result is decided by money instead of votes, and global awareness of this is on the rise. Yet, this undue influence over the electoral process remains – and is rising too.

In fact, the 2016 election process has brought in more money than ever before by megadonors. The over $1 billion mentioned before is more than double the amount spent by super PACs in the 2012 presidential campaign. And over three-quarters of this amount comes directly from wealthy individuals. This is a clear expansion of political power on the part of the affluent.

Trump made it sound like the affluent were handing over the majority of their donations to Clinton, who in turn gave them undue influence over her political process. But where was this money actually going?

Republican donors actually raised slightly more in this election, with a total of $488 million. Meanwhile, Democrats raised almost as much at $479 million. Although this ratio has shifted in the favour of Democrats since the 2012 election (Republicans raised 61% back then) it is important to note that Republicans had approximately the same amount of money raised by these super PACs. The self-interested motivations that may lie behind the super PACs are not limited to only one party.

In a campaign that brought so much attention to the undue influence of these megadonors to the democratic process, it is interesting that only one of the presidential candidates proposed campaign finance reforms on their website.

Despite Trump’s statement that he “loves campaign finance reform,” he was not that candidate. In fact, Trump has made no mention of any sort of election finance transparency or reform of the Citizens United decision on his official website. Interestingly, on Clinton’s official page on campaign finance reform, it states that she would have overturned the Citizens United decision within her first 30 days in office, and details policy steps for more transparent and accountable money in politics.

This is not to say that Clinton was free from the influence of the $479 million donated to the Democratic party; nor is it to say that Trump is working solely for the $488 million donated to his party. But it is to say that one candidate accused the other of benefitting from super PACs and the megadonors behind them, while paying no attention to his own benefits. The other was proposing to reform the system that gives an unfair advantage to the affluent in the democratic electoral process.

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