The recent surge by protest candidates and apathy toward front-runners set this presidential election cycle apart from others. The public may sense that our politics has reached a tipping point. Instead of solving the nation’s pressing ills, Washington is seen at the center of our problems.
It is not too difficult to make that case as growing evidence suggests our DC money culture has fueled the growing divide in wealth and polarization of the electorate. In “It’s Even Worse than it Looks,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein examine the voting records of Democrats and Republicans in Congress from the late 19th century through today. Their research concludes that polarization began in the late 1970s and accelerated from the 1990s to today.
In “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Thomas Piketty tracks the increase in wealth from 1913 through today. He concludes that concentrated wealth – particularly for the super wealthy or top 0.1 percent – began accelerating during this same timeframe.
What is unique about this period?
In 1976, the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down a federal regulation limiting independent campaign expenditures, promulgating that money equals speech. That legal precedent reached its culmination in 2010 with the Citizens United decision, which allows corporations and wealthy individuals to make unlimited contributions to secret political groups. By judicial fiat, we created the opportunity for concentrated wealth to gain an unprecedented role in the political process.
Concentrated wealth can fuel polarization through the political process in at least a couple of ways:
▪ Gasoline effect. The dramatic increase in spending on negative political ads designed to override voters’ independent judgment has a polarizing effect. For example, the amount of spending by presidential candidates went from $67 million in 1976 to $343 million in 2000 to $1.3 billion in 2008 to over $2 billion in 2012. Unfortunately, increased campaign spending does not equal more thoughtful debate on important issues. Typically, it is the opposite.
Ornstein and Mann cite a “concept paper” from Karl Rove to contributors seeking to raise $50 million for an independent expenditure that would focus on blaming Democrats for “failed border controls” and frame the BP oil spill as “Obama’s Katrina.” The stroke of a check by several individuals allows operatives to dominate the airwaves with messages tailored to anger voters on diversionary issues. The sheer volume of extreme negative messages serves to mobilize both ends of the political spectrum.
▪ Wackiness of the Few. In “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki makes a convincing argument that the best decisions come from the diverse collection of individuals acting independently and rationally. Surowiecki cites the idiosyncratic noise associated with individual judgment that gets canceled out when you aggregate a large number of responses to a problem, citing numerous case studies to prove his point. The wisdom of crowds, in essence, serves as the theoretical basis for political democracy.
132 The number of Americans who gave more than 60 percent of super PAC money in 2012
400 The number of families who have given nearly half of all political contributions to super PACAS and candidates so far in the 2016 presidential race
$67 million The amount of spending by presidential candidates in 1976
$343 million The amount spent in 2000
$2 billion The amount spent in 2012
However, we are evolving into a nation where fewer and fewer people shape decisions. A small fraction of the population now makes up a substantial majority of all political contributions. In fact, 132 Americans gave over 60 percent of the super PAC money in 2012. A more recent report on the 2016 presidential race found that, to date, nearly half of all political contributions – both to super PACs and candidates – came from 400 families.
Under tremendous pressure to raise money, elected officials now spend up to 70 percent of their time courting a small circle of super wealthy donors. The smaller the group of voices shaping our politics, the more distorted and extreme our politics become.
Most troubling, concentrated wealth and polarization may be generating a negative feedback loop. Polarization causes gridlock, which protects those benefiting from the status quo, who then have even greater wealth to influence the political process. Both political parties now operate largely as bystanders to the political industrial complex of wealthy donors, Super PACs, political consultants and media magnates.
Given that we are losing the ability to exercise control over our lives through the political process, wealth and polarization pose a grave threat to individual autonomy and self determination. It will require a social movement on a massive scale to alter the current trajectory. The start to this election cycle suggests the public may finally be ready.
Mack Paul, a Raleigh lawyer, is a former chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.