Race, Presidential Politics, and the Challenge of Creating a Democracy for All of Us

Unfortunately, too few of our elected officials and candidates are talking about race, too few are championing an awakening of our humanity, too few are willing to take on the systemic challenges of our country. Presidential candidates aren't going to be able to hide from this issue for long.
08/07/2015 03:24 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2016

When injustices occur in our society, the expectation we have of our democracy is that the candidates and public servants we elected respond. We expect that they will prioritize the demands, needs and concerns of the people. We expect that when society is outraged, that they will be too.

The Black Lives Matter movement is forcing Americans to face the fact that racism still has a strong heartbeat within the American psyche, and we are also reminded that this disease plagues not just the people, but the very systems and structures we live, work, and play in.

Unfortunately, too few of our elected officials and candidates are talking about race, too few are championing an awakening of our humanity, too few are willing to take on the systemic challenges of our country.

This disconnect is particularly evident in the Presidential race where even the most progressive of the democratic candidates arguably are not saying and doing enough - not just on the issue of institutionalized racism, but on the solutions to dismantle it.

One of the most powerful ways racism is perpetuated in American politics is in the way candidate's campaigns are funded and the loyalties those funds create in the process. In a study released this week by Every Voice, we found that campaign donations from all of the more than 1,200 majority black zip codes to the ten candidates that are leading the money race ($1.3 million combined in the last fundraising quarter) cannot compete with donations from just one rich majority white community: the area around Central Park. The same goes for the 1,300 majority Hispanic or Latino zip codes in the study. This data shows the extreme demographic disparity among those who are able to give and those who are able to give less.

Nationwide, the top contributing zip codes to presidential campaigns are wealthier and whiter. Donors from these areas are the one percent of the one percent who, due to the way political campaigns are funded today, have more voice and power than the rest of us in our political system.

Voters understand that when big money dominates in elections, wealthy donors get access and undue influence while everyone else is left behind - and ahead of 2016, big money is dominant like never before.

To win, candidates have to spend a significant amount of time asking people for money who often have different priorities than the rest of us. This phenomenon also impacts who has the ability to run. Do you have contacts on the Upper East Side? No? Oh, then you should build up your Rolodex and consider running another time.

No wonder we're not seeing the outrage, the action, the leadership. It's because the folks who live in the area around Central Park in Manhattan, although they may have empathy, they don't have the same outrage because it's not their families, their brother, their sister, their cousin who is impacted by racial injustice.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can have a government that is of, by, and for all of us. At the state and local level, there are models of successful small-dollar electoral systems that shift incentives in ways that allow substantive candidates who may not have connections to elites, but have strong community support, to run viable campaigns. These systems open the door for more people of color and women to run for office - and win with the support of a more diverse donor base.

In New York City, Connecticut, and Maine, hundreds of candidates have been able to run and win competitive campaigns for office by relying on a blend of small donations and public matching funds. It has resulted in better dialogue at the legislative level, more candidate diversity, and policy solutions more in line with the people's interests.

Solving our broken campaign-finance system will not end institutionalized racism in America, but it will significantly dismantle one of its major strongholds. Our current system reinforces divides in power and race that exist nationwide and it is harmful to our society and the ongoing strength of this great democracy.

Presidential candidates aren't going to be able to hide from this issue for very long. There is increasing pressure for them to speak to institutional racism in this country, and to the harm big money plays within our democracy. If presidential candidates are serious about creating a government that's truly of, by, and for the people, they'll offer comprehensive policy platforms like the Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda to reduce the influence of money in politics and empower everyday people to have a real voice in our democracy.