The Erosion of Democracy

02/05/2015 11:18 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

The control of American politics, like so much in this country, has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. This trend can be seen by comparing patterns of political expenditures and voter participation in the non-presidential elections of 2006 and 2014. Between these years, enough time has passed for trends to become clear, while they are not so distant from each other so as to make comparison inappropriate.

The first thing to note is that between those years, private political contributions to candidates, adjusted for inflation, declined 8.9 percent. 1. Some have argued that this decline signifies recognition by potential donors that giving money is an ineffective way to influence politicians. 2. But it is likely that this view is erroneous, and what is going on instead is that the wealthy elite is increasing its grip on the political process.

This inference is consistent with three recent developments. In the first place, big donors have become increasingly important as a source of campaign funds. While the number of people making political contributions in any amount declined from 787,309 in 2006 to 694,676 in 2014, the number of individuals who contributed $95,000 or more increased from 515 to 1,149. As a result, big donors were responsible for 10.7 percent of funding in 2014, more than twice the 4.3 percent they provided in 2006. 3.

Second, while direct contributions to campaigns have declined, outside expenditures have sky-rocketed. Adjusted for inflation, such expenditures increased almost seven-fold between 2006 and 2014. It is impossible to know who all of these donors are because increasingly they refuse to reveal their identities. In 2006, 85.8 percent of the sources of outside expenditure were made public, but in 2014 that percentage was 59.7. Nevertheless, analysts at the Center for Responsive Politics report that groups undertaking such outside spending "are overwhelmingly fueled by large donors." 4.

Third and finally, even as wealthy individuals have increased their role in politics, the rest of the population has become increasingly alienated. The percentage of the voting age population who actually voted in 2012 was at the lowest level since World War II, standing at 33.2 percent. Voter participation in 2006, in contrast, was 37.2 percent.

Taken separately, each of these developments weakens the democratic content of our political process. The increased role played by big donors in campaign financing means a loss of voice by small donors; increased anonymous spending by the wealthy not only strengthens the clout of those donors, but does so without accountability. And of course growing voter abstention means that the one potential push-back against the power of wealth - voter involvement - is in decline.

But what is even more alarming than the consequences of each of these developments separately, is that they may be mutually reinforcing. In this interpretation, the increased role of the wealthy in providing anonymous funding acts to discourage small donors from making political contributions. Unable to approach of the level of the big donors, they could well conclude that their small donations represent a waste of money. Similarly, the decline in voter participation most likely is influenced by the same kind of calculation. Why vote when big donations dictate who is running for office and when those candidates respond to campaign contributors rather than the electorate?

In this perspective, the democratic content of American politics has been seriously eroded, and barring the emergence of a strong democratic counter-thrust, the eviscerating of democracy is likely to continue. Among other consequences, this increasingly forecloses the possibility of addressing critical problems such racial tensions and economic inequality that are roiling the country. Those problems cannot be resolved so long as politics is controlled by the wealthy. The simple fact is that corrective action requires a new, more egalitarian, politics - one in which the voices of the poor and the middle class find expression and are acted on.

The current political dominance of wealth has to be reversed. However, it will not be easy to break into the vicious cycle of big donor growth, small donor retreat, and decreased voter participation. Doing so will require that the American people become convinced that politics should be treated as a public good, paid for with tax revenues. The implementing of a public funding option for candidates could dismantle the political stranglehold now possessed by the wealthy. By allowing individuals who are neither wealthy themselves nor possess access to private wealth to run for and hold office, the public could come to see the political process as a tool for progress rather than a source of alienation. Public funding of elections could stimulate a democratic renaissance.

1. Calculated from The Center for Responsive Politics, Donors Giving $200+ in "Donor Demographics" for 2006 and 2014, deflated with the Consumer Price Index.
2. Binyamin Appelbaum, "Who Wants to Buy a Politician?" The New Magazine, December 14, 2014, pp. 32-34.
3. Ibid
4. "Overall Spending Inches Up in 2014: Megadonors Equip Outside Groups to Capture a Bigger Share of the Pie", Center for Responsive Politics, October 29, 2014, Open Secrets Blog,