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Democrats Can’t Quit Their Addiction to Big-Money Donors

The urgency of beating Trump in November has once again set campaign finance reform on the back burner.

Joshua Roberts/Getty
Joe Biden speaks at an event in Pennsylvania on June 25.

In an unexpected break from American politics as usual, several of the insurgent congressional candidates who scratched out surprise wins (or are on track to winning) in last Tuesday’s primary elections—including Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones in New York and Charles Booker in Kentucky—ran campaigns that eschewed corporate PAC contributions. While they’re not the first Democrats to make that pledge (Barack Obama did it back in 2008), relying on large numbers of small donations to fund a campaign has become a viable strategy for progressives lately, including both of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in 2018.

But the Democratic Party in general and its presidential nominee, in particular, are still very much reliant on deep-pocketed donors. With a pandemic once more threatening to spiral out of control and protests against police violence continuing across the country, the urgency of defeating Donald Trump in November appears to have inspired a surge of donations. Many of them are from small-dollar donors who haven’t previously contributed to the campaign, but Biden is also raking in five- and six-figure donations through virtual events that only the one percent can afford to attend. For Democrats, courting big donors might seem like a practical strategy in the moment (especially given how much cash the Trump campaign has in hand), but such an alliance also threatens to perpetuate a vicious cycle of inequality, both political and economic.

A decade after the Citizens United ruling, both parties are awash with money from super PACs and wealthy individual donors. The watchdog Center for Responsive Politics found that since 2010, the 10 highest individual donors have together injected more than $1 billion into federal elections, conferring the wealthy with disproportionate political influence. Though some Democrats have advocated for campaign finance reform, most have also been willing to solicit (or simply accept) big money, arguing that refusing to do so would amount to political suicide. “I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” Kamala Harris surrogate Bakari Sellers told the Associated Press last year. “Trying to beat Donald Trump with small dollar donations? That’s about as good as an ashtray on a motorcycle.”

If you believe, as I suspect most people do, that money goes a long way in politics, he has a point. There’s long been a tension between Democrats speaking about the need for campaign finance reform and doing whatever they think they need to do to win—like when Obama, who had long denounced super PACs, embraced his own allied super PACs in 2012. Yet in 2016, Bernie Sanders—then still a curiosity that Democrats expected to fizzle out—disavowed corporate contributions and super PAC money and built a small-dollar fundraising juggernaut so successful that by the 2020 primaries, almost every Democratic contender followed suit (at least initially) in committing not to accept lobbyist or corporate PAC money.

Democrats have been increasingly conscious about where their campaign money comes from, at least in public. Every Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, including Biden, pledged not to take large donations from fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, or PACs—though plenty of candidates did take money from people connected to those industries. High-minded promises have often eroded in the face of needing cash: Both Biden and Elizabeth Warren reversed their original positions on accepting money from super PACs as the primary heated up.

If there briefly seemed to be some interest among Democrats in unshackling campaigns from corporate contributions and other forms of big money, that sentiment has all but vanished in the lead-up to November’s general election. The Biden campaign has amassed a number of super PAC contributions and donations from the wealthy, including $2 million from a recent fundraising Zoom call for big donors where “the minimum price to get on” was $50,000, according to The New York Times, or a little less than the median household income in Michigan. (The wealthy are encouraged to give up to $620,600 to the “Biden Victory Fund,” a joint venture of the Biden campaign, the Democratic National Party, and state Democratic parties launched last month that is designed so donors can skirt normal donation limits.)  

Last week, CNBC reported that while some on Wall Street were “bracing” for a Biden win and a possible rollback of Trump tax cuts, other financial elites were more than happy to back the former vice president, provided they could buy some influence. “A Wall Street bundler with ties to former President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has recently noticed a surge in calls being returned by uncommitted finance executives to now give to Biden,” CNBC noted. “This person has also pitched donors that if they donate, they may have a better chance at seeing their philanthropic initiatives supported by a Biden administration.”

Even politicians who have built reputations on steadfast opposition to corruption and the influence of the wealthy have seemingly dispensed with those convictions in order to ensure a Biden victory this fall. Earlier this month, Warren, who famously blasted Pete Buttigieg’s elite “wine cave” fundraiser on the campaign trail, hosted a virtual private fundraiser for the former vice president that pulled in $6 million from a group of elite donors—his largest single-day haul to date. 

A portion of the ruling class is determined to jettison the current president, and most Democrats seem eager to welcome them to the cause. But that proposition is riskier than it might seem. In 2014, the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published an explosive report detailing the outsize degree of influence of the rich on the political system and the ruinous consequences of economic inequality on democracy in the United States. Their analysis of a series of policy outcomes over 20 years found that the preferences of the rich were far more likely to shape politics than the preferences of the middle-class or poor.

“Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” the authors wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As they further noted in their follow-up book, that imbalance has translated to decades of policies that have slashed taxes for the wealthy, pared back the social safety net, and deregulated Wall Street, even as broad segments of the American public support initiatives like Medicare for All, higher taxes on the rich, and government intervention in climate change.

In any political partnership with the rich, even one undertaken out of expediency, it’s the rich who are likely to get their way in the end. A Biden administration, preferable as it may be to a second Trump term, isn’t likely to change that dynamic so long as the campaign and the candidate remain beholden to business interests and wealthy donors. Though Biden’s official platform currently includes some campaign finance reforms, there’s reason for those on the left to distrust his reformist instincts. As a senator he voted to repeal New Deal banking regulations and later gutted bankruptcy protections for borrowers (not exactly a shocker given that he represented Delaware, noted home of the credit card industry). His proposals to combat inequality have been lackluster when compared to his more progressive primary opponents’: He has pledged to increase the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent, but that’s still significantly less than the corporate tax rate of 35 percent that existed prior to Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.

The ongoing pandemic has only more painfully evinced the profound lopsidedness of the distribution of money and resources in the U.S., as well as a stunning absence of any significant government will to correct that balance. The continued political influence of the rich is likely to set the stage for an unequal recovery from the coronavirus and the related recession, no matter who’s elected to the White House in November. Biden may be poised to win (or so the polls tell us), but the Democrats’ ongoing entanglement with big money ensures the continuation of the types of policies that laid the ground for our current Gilded Age, even if it’s a slightly less cruel version than the Republicans’. As Biden himself promised a group of wealthy donors last year about his potential presidency, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”