THE BLOG
10/23/2014 10:24 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Voters, Billionaires and Elections for Whom?

Deborah Harrison via Getty Images

A superb article on the high stakes Florida Governor's Race in Sunday's New York Times Magazine entitled, "Oligarching of American Politics," by Jim Rutenberg, crystallizes, like no analysis before it, how recent Supreme Court decisions regarding campaign finance are potentially destructive to the core democratic processes that support inclusive civil discourse and facilitate mediation of our electoral politics.

The fundamental problem, as Rutenberg documents, is that the new campaign finance laws have empowered "... a massive power shift, from the party bosses to the rich individuals who ran the Super PACS ... almost overnight, traditional party functions ... were being supplanted by outside groups."

Why is this so bad? After all, wasn't the old system corrupt to its core? Didn't McCain Feingold institute "good government" reforms in 2002 including limiting the undue influence of large donor contributions of unreported "soft money" funneled through state party committees? Weren't these contributions and donors rife with conflicts, abuses and influence peddling? These were legitimate concerns.

However, the combination of slamming closed the door to "soft money" for political parties, and eight years later with the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision, swinging open the contributions door to "independent expenditure" non-profits and SuperPacs has had two separate, but related, significant adverse consequences.

(To clarify, current law prohibits unlimited and undisclosed contributions to political parties that previously were allowed for grassroots party-building activities, and permits unlimited, undisclosed contributions to both "independent expenditure" non-profit organizations, as well as unlimited contributions (which must be disclosed) to SuperPacs, for a wide range of election activities so long as they are not directly "coordinated" with a candidate or political party.)

The first significant consequence is that parties are being weakened. Despite common concerns about our political parties, including the McCain Feingold targeted issues, parties perform legitimate and unique functions that now are being hampered. Specifically, both of our major Parties (1) have significantly less money to spend on grassroots electoral politics than they did prior to McCain Feingold; (2) are losing, or have lost, important controls of electoral messages and strategies delivered through grassroots activities; and (3) have been stripped of some of the invaluable mediating role that they historically have played in balancing the competing wings, and tempering the narrow interests, within their party.

The second adverse consequence is that every politically motivated billionaire or centi-millionaire has been liberated and empowered to create his or her own personal electoral apparatus -- political ads, communication centers, opposition research, registration and voter contact initiatives, get-out-the-vote programs, and etc. -- to support a candidate or candidates that hew to their personal interests.

In this not so brave new world of campaign finance law, broadly representative parties are being muffled, while a few, frequently untraceable, donors are creating loud and influential megaphones in state and federal elections.

We witnessed some of these effects during the 2012 Republican Presidential primary when both Sheldon Adelson (Newt Gingrich supporter) and Foster Friess (Rick Santorum supporter) unabashedly shored up struggling second tier candidates, prolonged the primary process, frustrating Mitt Romney's strategies, and created a general election nightmare for the Republican Party.

It now is highly likely that in the future other super wealthy Democrats or Republicans will shower support on a marginal candidate during their party's primary process, or a wealthy Independent donor(s) will support an independent candidacy during the general election, thus undermining candidates with broader public support.

The combination, on the one hand, of parties with diminished resources with which to support their candidates, and, on the other hand, of wealthy individuals able to create their own electoral machinery (1) is weakening the party as a mediating influence, (2) is contributing to the fracturing of each party into competing wings, (3) may eventually lead to three, four or more parties; and (4) is empowering super wealthy individuals to build their own electoral apparatus to promote their own personal messages and underwrite their preferred candidates.

This is not hyperbole. The Rutenberg article, and others, meticulously documents how the devolution of electoral politics into a privatized playing field for mega wealthy individuals is impacting our elections, our policies, our politics and our democracy.

We are at a critical inflection point. It is time to engage the nation, expeditiously and thoughtfully, in serious examination of the role of parties, major donors and our campaign finance regimen.

We ultimately may conclude that converting elections into playing fields exclusively, or primarily, for the wealthy is better for elections and democracy than strong parties, less conflicted than a world filled with party bosses, and more innovative and spirited than the restrictions imposed by party disciplines.

Or conversely, we might conclude that the real casualty of the current laws is the heightened potential for dramatic erosion of the voices and influence of individual voters. It is time to objectively and intensely examine the precise costs of replacing stronger party disciplines and the Party's mediating role with an electoral system where unrepresentative wealthy individuals with the largest megaphones have the greatest influence.

These are not easy questions. Nor are there simple answers to how we might create a more productive role for political parties or a more constructive and representative system of campaign finance. However, compelling evidence of the inherent dangers of a weak party, wealth dominated electoral system is mounting.

I am not custodian of ultimate wisdom about how to fix our current campaign finance problems. However, my role as a citizen and my experiences in Party politics and in the founding of the Democracy Alliance have convinced me that we must raise serious concerns and explore more representative campaign finance options that honor and elevate the roles of both parties and individuals.

Electoral success in these times requires that candidates and donors use all of the legal tools and resources at their disposal, but Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court decisions are dangerously tipping the scales of electoral politics against the will of the many. As a consequence, I strongly believe that we now are recklessly weakening parties, increasingly disempowering small and medium donors, and unduly empowering the wealthiest among us.

The answer to a fairer, more transparent and democratic campaign finance system does not have to eliminate generous contributions from wealthy contributors -- individuals, associations or corporations. But it must protect the rights of voters to campaigns and candidates that are ultimately accountable to the many and are not the unrepresentative contrivances of a wealthy few.

Questions such as the following might inform robust deliberations about the increasingly clear and present dangers of our existing campaign finance laws:

• What are the best, most effective options for assuring greater integrity, responsible disciplines, better qualified candidates, more transparency and less dominance by personal agendas in our electoral processes?

• Do we believe that political parties can be effective forums to temper and mediate among appropriate and inevitable internal party passions?

• Is the existence of two, well-managed and responsible parties preferable to five or more parties, and/or to the cacophony of an unlimited number of personal party-like electoral machines each wholly owned and operated by one or more wealthy individual(s)?

• Is it possible, and appropriate, to craft reasonable laws to modulate the potentially adverse electoral influence of grand sums of money controlled by narrow interests or single individuals?

• Would creative incentives inspire far more small and medium donors to support candidates and parties and give greater voice to a broader cross section of voters?

Citizens of both parties should demand that these and other relevant questions about campaign finance reform dominate the 2016 election dialogue. We will have plenty of other substantive domestic, international and economic issues to discuss over the next two years and our major candidates for federal and state office can be counted on to discuss and debate these endlessly.

But it is for we, the people, to demand that our leading candidates -- especially those running for President -- and the voting public confront and debate the scourge of "The Oligarching of American Politics." We owe it to ourselves and to the health and vitality of our democracy.

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Rob Stein was a senior strategist for Ron Brown, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1989-1992; and in 2005, he founded the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy progressive donors who invest collaboratively in non-party, non-candidate, independent expenditure organizations. While Mr. Stein is an ex officio member of the Alliance's Board of Directors, the views expressed herein are his own.