Whatever the outcome of the election on November 6, the clear loser will be political equality. Three developments in this election cycle have empowered wealthy special interests at the expense of everyone else. More money is required to run for office than ever before; anonymous donors have become a political force; and it has become increasingly difficult to qualify to vote. In the ongoing struggle between the power of wealth and that of numbers, the former is ascending while the latter is in decline.
It is clear that private political contributions during this election cycle will exceed that of all previous campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of October 29th candidates for the U.S. Senate had already spent over $628 million, a 75 percent increase over what was spent during the entire 2008 election cycle. The change is not quite as dramatic in races for seats in the House. Nevertheless the pattern is the same. A little over $1 billion has been spent on these races by October 29th compared to the $938 million spent throughout 2008. Since all of these expenditures depend on donations from private individuals, most of whom are affluent, the increased cost of running for office means that individuals who are not wealthy or do not have access to private wealth are less viable candidates than ever before. Politics increasingly belongs to an economic elite.
Second, recent Supreme Court decisions have resulted in an avalanche of "independent" political spending. These are expenditures that are not formally coordinated with political campaigns, a distinction that fools no one except five Supreme Court judges. This "outside" spending has reached prodigious levels. Slightly over $1 billion has already been spent, about two-thirds by conservative organizations.
To make matters worse, it has become increasingly difficult to identify who is making these large contributions. Donations now can be funneled through organizations without the donors being identified. The CRP's estimate is that about $300 million has been raised and spent behind the veil of anonymity. Not only has privately raised money become politically more important, but for the first time since the 1970s it is not even possible to identify who is exercising that power.
And, as if all of this were not bad enough, voting rights are under attack. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that since 2011, 25 restrictive laws and two similar executive actions were passed in nineteen states. There has been some judicial and legislative push-back to these initiatives. Nevertheless as of October 11th, 16 of these restrictive new laws and two executive actions in thirteen states were still in effect for the 2012 election. These include restrictions on early voting, rules making it difficult for people with past criminal convictions to vote, the imposition of new requirements concerning voter identification, and the elimination of same-day voter registration. As the Brennan Center notes, "These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, elderly and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities," and as a result, "This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election and beyond."
These restrictive initiatives represent an escalation in an ongoing struggle concerning the nature of democracy. The right to vote represents the principle vehicle by which those who are not among the elite can express their views and influence the formation of policies. But precisely because potential power resides in the vote, access to the ballot box is under attack.
This perverse tide can be reversed. Democracy is a deeply cherished value in American culture and society. But the fact is that at the moment the defenders of political equality are on the defensive. We are not well organized, nor do we have an attractive rallying cry. Nevertheless the belief in political equality resides deeply in American culture and a social movement to achieve a democratic renaissance is therefore possible.
Such a movement to rejuvenate democracy will have to argue that economic inequality and political disenfranchisement are two sides of the same coin. Political rules facilitate the amassing of gigantic fortunes. The resulting increased wealth, in turn, is used to ensure that those rules are strengthened. That is the vicious circle that has to be broken. Doing so can become the vision that motivates the needed counter-offensive.
In the United States today, reversing the trend to political inequality requires that a wall be constructed between political and economic activity. An alternative to elite donor dependence has to be available to political candidates. Unless and until they possess the option of financing their campaigns with public funds, there is next to no likelihood that current patterns will change. Recognition of this fact can be the start of a movement that saves the country.