Bernie's Attack on the Billionaire Class; Is it Really That Simple?

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Pre
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday, April 14, 2016 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The simplistic way the Sanders campaign views money in politics has been driving me crazy, because it seems so clear, but it is so distorted as to mislead an entire generation of younger voters. The simple tale the Sanders campaign tells is that big money is always evil, small donations are always good, and that accepting campaign contributions from people who work in an industry such as finance or energy is a kind of legal bribery. This sounds absolutely true until you examine it with more care. The Sanders campaign is using this like a cudgel against Hillary Clinton, when I would argue that the big money interests that stand in the way of progressive causes have not bought Hillary Clinton, or the Democratic Party, and the evidence is on my side. Big Business has their champion in the Republican Party, and they are the ones Sanders should be attacking.

Some history: I spent many years writing about money in politics, going all the way back to the book I co-authored with the late Herbert Alexander, dean of campaign finance analysis, Financing the 1988 Election (Westview Press). I wrote articles on campaign finance and congressional elections, book chapters, and ran for Congress myself as a progressive Democrat endorsed by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in my home state of Nebraska in 1984, where I was dutifully and expectedly clobbered by the incumbent Republican. I went to Washington as a Democratic nominee for Congress begging for PAC money from all the progressive PACs, and the only money I could get was from unions, and that was only because my family had a history with the UFCW, because my Dad was a packinghouse worker in Omaha. So I am hardly a corporate tool.

Some evidence: let's look at the simple explanation Sanders is offering his followers. Ask yourself the "if-then" question researchers use. If it were true that our politics was completely decided by legalized bribery, then wouldn't it be the case that both parties would be serving the biggest moneyed interests? Only die-hard socialists believe this, because for them it is a matter of faith that the "millionaire and billionaire classes" always work for their own advantages and against the interests of ordinary workers. The actual evidence is that the Democratic party supports environmentalism, unions, raising the minimum wage for workers, equal pay for women, and on and on. The Democratic party supports progressive taxation and fights like hell against efforts to give more tax breaks to the top one percent of the population. The Democratic party fights like hell against polluters. And yet, most Democratic members of the House and Senate have some portion of their campaign funds coming from "the millionaires and billionaires" that Sanders attacks every day with his broad, broad brush.

There are millionaires in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, in the Upper West Side and elsewhere who are environmentalists and champions of the rights of workers. From where did we get the "Buffet rule," the notion that a secretary should never pay at the same tax rate as the boss? From billionaire Warren Buffet, supporter of Democrats. And a mensch from my home town of Omaha.

But is Hillary Clinton some kind of stealth Republican, gaining most of her money from Goldman Sachs? No, in fact, it has been illegal for a long time for companies to donate directly to candidates. They can contribute only through corporate PACs. Hillary Clinton takes zero money from corporate PACs, and donations from an individual who works at Goldman Sachs are hardly the same as a corporate check. But you wouldn't know this from Bernie's hot and angry rhetoric. But why would Hillary get lots of donations from people who work on Wall Street, if not to buy her votes? Could it be possible that it has something to do with the fact that she represented New York in the Senate for eight years, and New York City is the national capital of banking and finance? Could it be likely that wealthy individuals are more able to give large campaign donations to their favorite candidates, and that these wealthy donors are Democrats who want a Democrat to win in November?

If Hillary Clinton had represented Iowa in the Senate for eight years, I'd expect to find checks from a lot of donors who work in Agribusiness. Because Bernie Sanders is a senator from a rural state with a lot of gun owners, I'd expect Bernie Sanders to get a lot of donations from people who own guns and belong to the NRA. But there's no way to know that, because the Federal Election Commission only asks donors what industry they work in, not what other organizations they support.

Back to the "if-then" question. If you think Hillary Clinton has been bought and paid for by "the billionaire class," then where is the proof of this in the actual actions, advocacy and voting record of Hillary Clinton? When asked about this in the Brooklyn debate by Dana Bash, who invited Bernie to point to a single vote that demonstrated this supposed truth, he could not offer an example, not one.

It would be great if all campaigns could be funded by massive amounts of money from small donors. But political science evidence tells us that most American voters are not ideologically committed enough to either party to send any party or candidate a dime. Only the most ideologically motivated give money, on both sides. If the average American voter would commit to sending $10 per month, month after month, to the party of her or his choice, there might be enough money to allow candidates to skip fundraising altogether and just concentrate on governing. Trust me, politicians would love this. They hate fundraising! Fundraising sucks! I know, I have done it.

But just having a base of small donors does nothing to prove that your campaign is all about justice and fairness. Sometimes small campaign contributions come from racists sending in their dimes to Donald Trump. Sometimes wealthy people support the environment and women's rights and an end to mass incarceration. Sometimes things that seem to be true, just aren't. So until Bernie's campaign has evidence that Hillary is corrupt, from a 30-year record of public service including numerous votes in the Senate and years of advocacy for women's rights, minority rights, children's rights, the Sanders campaign should shut up. Put up or shut up, Bernie. It's the Republican Party that's been getting open support from big business for years, and the evidence in her voting records is clear as crystal that she's been their Number One Enemy her whole career. So to Bernie and his supporters, I want to say this; cease and desist. You are aiming your fire at the wrong enemy.