President Obama made a speech recently on the importance of tackling the massive, Grand Canyon-sized chasm of income inequality in America. He said it is "the defining challenge of our time." He continued, "the premise that we're all created equal is the opening line in the American story. Success [shouldn't] depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it [should] depend on effort and merit." The president went on to propose or restate his policy prescriptions to address income inequality and urged Congress to act.
Nevertheless, over a period of three days earlier that same week the president was on the West Coast and, over the course of seven fundraisers, raised at least $6.5 million for Democratic candidates in the 2014 elections. At most of the events, donors paid between $16,200 and $32,400 to attend. If a worker making minimum wage is getting 40 hours a week, he or she is going to make about $15,080 per year, which is not enough to afford a dinner plate at one fundraiser. There is a certain cognitive dissonance about rhetoric on inequality and actions raising money from high-income donors.
Of course it isn't only the president but senators and congressmen from both parties who raise vast sums of money from high-income donors. In these days of record-breaking-spending legislators and aspiring politicians, regardless of party, pursue campaign dollars from high-income donors as a matter of simple political survival. They follow the advice of Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robbed banks said, "that's where the money is."
Raising money has become so critical to political success that the voices of those who have money to give to politicians have often overwhelmed the voices of those who do not. Like Bob Dole once famously said, "there is no poor people's political action committee." It defies the laws of human nature to believe that politicians are not influenced by campaign contributions. It is rare when any public official will deliberately pursue policies inconsistent with the views of their donors. The result is though many of our leaders would like to adopt policies helping the poor and middle class, those policies will often take a back seat to the realities of our current political system.
The problem is not that wealthy people give money to politicians, it is how our political system has evolved so that the race for campaign funds is greater than ever and fundraising takes up a disproportionate amount of our legislator's time and effort. Money has always been the mother's milk of politics and in the post-Citizens United world the need for huge sums of money to have success in the political system is paramount. By virtue of the necessity to raise vast sums of money to be politically competitive the very wealthy donors are able to make significant contributions that often overwhelm smaller donors in the political process. There is nothing wrong with the constitutional right of people to contribute to candidates. But by virtue of increasing volume of dollars and deregulated campaign finance laws the political system is more and more skewed towards higher income donors, which undoubtedly impacts policy decisions.
Americans have always been able to tolerate more inequality than other developed nations because of the deep seated belief in the American dream; if you work hard, over time you can build a better life for your children. But the truth is that social and economic mobility in America is not what it used to be. Statistics show that if you are born poor in America today you're likely to remain poor, and if you are in the middle class the path to economic improvement is not as clear as it once was.
The president, members of Congress, and candidates for office should understand that the saturation of money in the political system impacts income inequality. Americans have a natural predisposition to making government work more practically and intelligently and they intuitively understand the imbalance in the system created by a dramatic increase in campaign expenditures over the past 25 years exacerbated by general deregulation in campaign finance laws. The American people want to preserve the American dream for future generations. There is certainly no silver bullet for solving the widening gap between the rich and poor but if the president wants to make a difference on income inequality he should start by leading a national discussion about the role of money in American politics.