In an electoral system like ours, funded by private contributors, political donations determine why some issues find a place on the country's political agenda while others, no matter the level of their importance, do not even get discussed. Money both encourages and discourages. When candidates adopt positions consistent with the interests or ideological preferences of donors, they can anticipate supportive financing. But politicians who dare to adopt a contrary position risk being cut off from the money they need to win on election day. Wealth thus determines the content of campaigns.
Aside from the undemocratic nature of such a set-up, this means that pressing national issues get shoved under the rug. As urgent as a reform might be, if the donor class does not approve, it is politically a non-starter.
The most obvious such issue in the United States today is that of global climate change. The fact is that the United States is second only to China as the leading source of CO2 emissions in the world. Indeed, on a per capita basis, we even exceed China. According to the World Bank, per capita emission in the United States in 2008 came to 18.0 metric tons per person compared to 5.5 for China. 1.
It is not as if Americans are unaware of the problem. In response to a March 2012 Gallup Poll, 55 percent of respondents indicated that they worry "a great deal or a fair amount about global warming." The percentage of Americans who think "global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime" now stands at 38 percent, the highest it has ever been - up 13 percent points from 1998 when this question was first asked. 2.
Yet the fact remains that this problem - critical with regard to the future of our species - remains a politically taboo subject. Very few candidates discuss it. When energy policy is considered, it almost always is in terms of national security rather than of saving the planet. That is why natural gas has come to be seen as a panacea. The fact that it too is a CO2 emitter is dismissed in the name of making the country energy-independent. Also ignored, despite protests at the grassroots, are the damaging consequences of hydrofracking - the technique used to obtain natural gas.
A similar issue concerns the possession of guns in the United States. Data compiled by the United Nations indicates that the United States homicide rate is nearly four times higher than that of the thirteen other developed countries for which data are available. (The United States homicide rate was 4.2 per 100,000 of the population, compared to a mean of 1.1 for the others). 3. This too is something that concerns many Americans. The most recent Pew Research Center survey on the subject indicates that despite the presumed presence of a "gun culture" in the United States, the percentage of Americans wanting to "control gun ownership" exceeds the percentage who want to "protect gun owners' rights" by 45-49 percent. The belief that controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights is particularly strong among Blacks (72 percent) and also among those with less than a high school diploma (59 percent). 4.
Yet this sentiment has gained virtually no political traction. If anything, the protection of gun ownership rights has strengthened in recent years. The near majority seeking reform possesses little political voice or clout. Even when the tragedy of mass killings dominates the air waves, politicians do nothing more than extend condolences. And weapons designed for military offensives go unchallenged as legitimate weapons of self-protection.
It is not hard to discover why reforms to reduce global climate change or to curb the American homicide rate have no place on today's political agenda. Reform advocates are massively outspent by their opponents. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) reports that in the current political cycle, the oil and gas sector has contributed over $30 million to Senate and House candidates, while representatives of the environment movement and alternative energy sector combined have chipped in a total of $1.4 million. On the gun control front, the mismatch is even more dramatic. While the "gun rights" sector has made donations of $1.5 million, the CRP's report for "gun control" lists only two contributions (Mayors Against Illegal Guns and The Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence) which together totaled $120,000. 5.
It would be one thing if issues like these were inconsequential. The control exercised by wealth might be more tolerable in that case. But both of these are literally life and death problems, problems that could be alleviated if not eliminated through the political process. That they are not seriously addressed by politicians points to how dangerous and socially dysfunctional the private funding of election campaigns has become.
1. World Bank, World Development Indicators 2012 (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2012), Table 3.9
2. Frank Newport, "Americans' Worries About Global Warming Up Slightly," March 30, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/153653/Americans-Worries-Global-Warming-Slightly.aspx
3. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "UNODC Homicide Statistics," www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html
4. Pew Research Center, "Public Takes Conservative Turn on Gun Control, Abortion," April 30, 2009, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1212/abortion-gun-control-opinion-gender-gap
5. Center for Responsive Politics, www.opensecrets.org/industries/lookup.php