The 2016 campaign is in full swing now, with significant candidates in both parties officially declaring they will run. We are fully a year and a half away from election day, and each big name candidate will raise and spend close to (or well over) $1 billion. I wonder what our founding fathers would think of the modern campaigns and the way money operates in the political system?
Of course, the founding fathers had wildly different viewpoints on liberty and the role of government. Recently I saw a Broadway musical called Hamilton by Lin Manuel-Miranda. Alexander Hamilton was a unique and often forgotten founding father. He rose from nothing, an orphan living in the West Indies, to become a key figure in the American Revolution, a close ally of George Washington and one of the most significant contributors to the Federalist Papers.
The founding fathers had lengthy and heated debates over the proper role of government in American life. Hamilton was a strong proponent of an active and strong federal government, much more so than Jefferson, for example. But, he believed a key check on a more expansive and powerful federal government was a strong legislature that truly represented all of its citizens. That is to say, the basis for legitimate government was consent of all of the governed.
Were he alive today and witnessing what our political system has become, I am certain he would say that we have badly damaged and perhaps substantially abandoned this principle of democratic government. Given the outsize role of money in politics, thus empowering those who possess the most money, it is totally inconsistent to say that all Americans have a say in their government.
Take, for example, Senator Ted Cruz's recent announcement that his super PAC's kicked off their first week of fundraising by hauling in $31 million. Nearly all of it came from four families, and most of it from just one. As the noted campaign finance expert Trevor Potter said in a New York Times article, "It takes a random billionaire to change a race and maybe change the country. That's what's so radically different now."
Reports say that Secretary Clinton will raise and spend $1 billion during the entirety of this campaign, and much more if you count outside spending. She did express some concern about the role of money in politics in her recent campaign stop, but in order to be competitive candidates have to compete for dollars. Being concerned about it doesn't change that reality. Over one billion dollars is an astounding, record breaking, mind boggling amount of money to spend on a single candidate in an election. The truth is, you cannot be a credible candidate for most federal positions, including president, without being able to raise enormous sums of cash. This process concentrates power over our government and our society in the hands of the people capable of making the largest donations: the mega-donors.
Hamilton once said, during a heated debate over the ratification of the Constitution, "here, sir, the people govern; here they act by their immediate representatives." Can we honestly say that this is still true? Do we believe, truly, that all citizens are empowered to have a voice in their government, when the gatekeepers of a candidate's viability for office are a handful of unbelievably wealthy American families? Our founding fathers were prescient in many ways, providing a system that had checks and balances designed to preserve liberty and ensure a peaceful and stable society. But the founding principle of this form of government is the consent of the governed. The gigantic role of money in our political system isn't what they had in mind.