A lot of people feel like they have no voice in politics, that their concerns and priorities just don’t matter to politicians. They’re not far off. In 2014, Marten Gilens and Benjamin Page undertook an analysis of nearly 1,800 different national policy issues, going back a decade, to try to determine who had the most influence with our elected officials. The results were shocking. They found that “the priorities and preferences of ‘average citizens’ had little or no independent influence on the policies adopted” by Congress. Little or no independent influence. This was true even when Republican and Democratic voters were in basic agreement about an issue. According to their study, the will of the majority of every day citizens impacted legislation only when it happened to coincide with what the preferences of the wealthy or big business.
Most folks probably don’t know about this particular study, but they know from experience that politics has been captured by the rich and the powerful. That’s no doubt why affluent individuals tend to vote at a much higher rate than low income and working people.
It hasn’t always been this way. So how did we get here? How did politics become a tool for the powerful to increase their power? No doubt there are many reasons for this, but I’ll offer three. First, it’s who we’re electing to Congress: Millionaires. Starting in 2012, well over half of all members of the US House and the Senate were millionaires, compared with just 4% who are ‘working class’. This is about equally true for Democrats and Republicans. Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that every wealthy person has the same values and political views, any more than that’s true among working and middle-class people. But if most of our ‘representatives’ belong to the country club while most of us are parking their cars or delivering produce to the kitchen door (speaking from experience here), it’s no wonder that politics is not serving the needs of everyday people.
The second issue is money in politics. Part of why so many members of Congress are rich is because it takes so doggone much money to run a competitive political campaign. As someone who most definitely is not a millionaire, I can attest to how difficult it is to run for Congress, putting both my farm and business on hold for the better part of a year in order to campaign seven days a week. If you decide to accept no corporate PAC money, but instead to raise funds from neighbors and other small donors, as I have, it is much more difficult and time-consuming to raise what you need. That’s why most Congressional candidates do get money, directly or indirectly, from big donors, corporate PACs and Super PACs. And once they do, they’re beholding to the few more than they are to us, the many. And when I say, ‘the few’ I mean it: By 2012, nearly half of all political contributions were given by the richest .01 % of Americans, that is the top 1 out of 10,000 people.
But the influence of money doesn’t stop when elections are over. Far from it. That’s when the lobbyists take control, representing those same elite interests that paid for most of the elections in the first place. And that’s the third reason that everyday people have so little say in our political process. Lobbyists not only impact which bills are passed and which are not; they often write the detailed legislation, ensuring that the law works well for the interests they represent. How else could we have gotten campaign finance rules that allow the super-rich to contribute tens of millions of dollars in virtual secrecy, while you and I have to disclose our name, address, employer and occupation for any contribution of $200 or more?
No doubt, this is all pretty depressing. But rather than despair and withdraw, we need to redouble our efforts to reduce the influence of Big Money in politics. There are things that you and I can do: First, support candidates who don’t take corporate donations and who won’t allow secret Super PAC money near their campaign. I’m one of those candidates, but there are others, running for both state and federal offices. You can learn where candidates get their funds from OpenSecrets.org.
Second, fight for publicly funded elections to level the playing field between wealthy donors and the rest of us. Should I be elected, I’ll fight to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which will help candidates accepting only small donations, and help overcome the influence of deep-pocketed donors. Related to that, I’ll work with others to overturn or negate the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that unleashed gargantuan sums of secret, ‘dark money’ into our elections.
Last, we need legislation that closes the revolving door between elected officials and lobbyists so that congresspeople and their senior staff can no longer leave office to take a lucrative job with the very firms they, supposedly, had been monitoring and regulating. When Justice Department lawyers prosecuting fraud by giant financial firms turn around to become lobbyists with the same Wall Street Banks, something is terribly wrong.
It’s a tough fight, but we must fight for that change, rather than giving up. We can make sure the government and politics serves everyday people if we work together.