Articles and Essays

The Entangled Relationship of Money, Politics

April 7, 2016
Hemlata Vasavada
Centuries ago Aristotle described three types of governments–one ruler, few rulers, and many rulers who are benevolent (Kingship, Aristocracy or Polity) or malevolent (Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy—now termed Mobocracy).
Democracy originates from the words “demos” (people) and “kratia” (power). President Lincoln described it as, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Since rule by all is impossible, the framers of the constitution settled on a representative government where people have the power to choose their representatives through elections. Most democracies aim for what Aristotle called Aristocracy–rule by a select group for the benefit of their citizens. Money wasn’t a requirement to lead a country, but nowadays it has become an essential part of the election process.
According to Open Secrets, 2,207 groups organized as Super PACs have collected more than $500 million and spent nearly $209 million in this election cycle. The Associated Press reported that more than two dozen groups each gave at least $50,000 to “a presidential-aligned Super PAC” between October and December of 2015.
Special interest financing is more prevalent for legislative campaigns. The percentage of funds from special interest groups for legislative candidates for our states of Idaho and Washington are 57% and 49% respectively. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, sources of Super PAC contributions are secret and we will never know which special interests will influence decisions of our elected leaders.
Even in the 1800’s, candidates relied on wealthy supporters to finance their election. Between the 1830 and 1832 election cycle, The Bank of the United States spent $40,000 against Andrew Jackson’s reelection because of his anti-banking platform. Later, political parties were supported by wealthy individuals, and government employees were asked to contribute a portion of their pay to candidates. In 1867 the first campaign finance law, the Naval Appropriation Bill, prohibiting government employees from soliciting contributions from Navy yard workers, was passed. In 1883 all federal civil service workers were added to the list.
In the 1900’s many politicians and journalists proposed antitrust laws, greater citizen participation and secret ballots, so the voters couldn’t be forced by their employers to vote for candidates of the employers’ choice. President Theodore Roosevelt advocated anti-corporate activities, yet accepted contributions from bankers and industrialists during his reelection campaign. After his election he proposed that “Contributions by corporations to any political committee or any political purpose should be forbidden by law.” However, no restrictions were placed on the owners or shareholders of the corporations.
Several efforts have been made to restrict the influence of money, including the Tillman Act, Hatch Act, Smith-Connally Act, Taft-Hartley Act, McCain-Feingold Act and Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. In earlier times, contributions were declared, but not anymore. To remedy this, in 2010 a few legislators from Democratic Party proposed the DISCLOSE Act, requiring the sponsors to identify the donors. But the bill didn’t pass. Since the contribution sources are secret, the elected officials can make decisions based on what the donors want and not what the voters want.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics says, “These public officials may be bringing IOUs with them to Washington.”
Campaign finance Reform can only be accomplished through a constitutional amendment or reversal by the Supreme Court of its Citizens United decision. Until then, we have “Government of the Special interest, for the Special Interest and by the Special Interest” and Aristotle’s classification continues to morph from Aristocracy to Oligarchy.