By Michael Pasternak (ME ’17)
Campaign finance reform and Washington corruption is the defining issue of this election cycle. On one side, we have the so-called “establishment.” This includes the likes of Hillary Clinton, a prior contender for the Presidency and a recent First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, as well as Governor Kasich and Senator Rubio, one of which has an immense amount of government experience and another whom has the full backing of the Republican Party. On the other side we have longtime Senator Bernie Sanders, who is quite unpopular with the Democratic Party itself, having only recently officially joined it and netting only five representative endorsements, but who is the most popular Senator in the United States among his constituency.
Donald Trump occupies the principle anti-establishment position on the right, having no government experience whatsoever and with the leadership pledging to distance themselves from him if he wins the GOP nomination, he is the most “pure” anti-establishment vote out there. Some might ask about Cruz, but since he both engages in all of the “establishment” fundraising and lobbying schemes and is reviled among all of his colleagues and opponents, I would argue hating Ted Cruz is perhaps the most bipartisan issue facing the nation.
A lot of people can generally see a difference; Trump and Sanders have a manner of speaking that is very authentic: they typically say what they want to see with conviction and with little attention paid to things like focus groups and the audience in front of them. They both have noticeable accents, look extremely different than the other candidates, and seem pretty pissed. A lot of Americans seem to feel those qualities represent them and are supporting those candidates at an unprecedented rate, financially.
So what is it that has everyone so angry, really? Is it simply “class warfare?” Turns out it really, really isn’t. Corruption is not a new factor in politics. It’s been around since the first governments were formed and it looks unlikely to ever completely go away. As they say, “power corrupts,” and governance requires power. However, a healthy and successful American democracy has historically relied upon a push and pull between special interests and the wider public which, in recent years, has been knocked way off balance.
There are two large changes in recent years, which have shed light on the power of money in politics. The first is the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC. The case decreed that money is a form of free speech; or rather that free speech cannot be impugned if money comes with it. The upshot of the decision is that campaign financing was opened to corporations and not just their composite individuals and all caps were lifted on contributions. The law stipulated that there could be no direct collaboration between campaigns and these new super-PACs, which were the organizations created to use the new corporate money, but a number of loopholes have emerged, rendering those rules worthless.
The other effect was that campaign finance was brought out of the shadows. In the past, millions of dollars were still funneled into campaigns through organizations called 501(c)’s. These allowed contributions capped at a high rate to be funneled into campaigns by individuals. There were a number of loopholes that made sure money still found it’s way into races and friendly politicians’ pockets. The other clear warrant for corruption comes from gerrymandering, where districts are redefined to give incumbents a voting advantage. Essentially, gerrymandering aims to isolate voters that lean towards the opposition candidate among districts that heavily lean towards friendly candidates. This creates a situation in which the popular vote has little to do with who is in control of congressional districts. It’s flagrantly undemocratic and so obvious that it’s easy to get angry about it.
Now here’s the controversy: does taking money from special interest groups mean you are corrupt? Can one prove that government officials are directly compensating large donations with friendly policy? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. We can, by and large, prove that special interests are treated better on account of what amounts to legalized bribery, but individual events are incredibly hard to pinpoint.
Now to get nerdy. According to a New York Times article shortly after the 2010 elections (it was updated to say not much has changed) the average winner in a state election spent $310,000 more on canvassing and advertisement than the average loser. After those elections, we immediately saw an increase in something referred to as Regulatory Capture, which is when industries control the regulatory bodies that are meant to provide a check on them. According to a Brennan Center report from 2014, the four states that tracked outside spending in both 2010 and 2014, Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin, saw those spending levels increase by a factor of 20 (Connecticut), 4 (Maine), 4 (Michigan), and 5 (Wisconsin) from 2010 levels as a result of the decision.
Relatively unknown names with big ambitions have financed outside groups that spent heavily on races for statehouse, mayor, and even school board. At the state level, it is possible for a single funder to dominate the discourse and machinery of politics in a way not seen at the federal level. What this functionally means is that the government is now actively working to support special interests and large corporations instead of serving to rein them in. Most of us have already seen the effects, whether it be shoddy internet providers, nuclear plants being unfunded, or regulations strangling a small business we are close to in favor of a larger competitor. It’s all a part of a bigger, deeper issue with how our system is run.
Now, there is an exception to this. In presidential politics, spending encounters diminishing returns. As more money is spent on ads, people start seeing ads multiple times or become annoyed and oversaturated. This is most clear in the campaign of Governor Jeb Bush, who despite massive spending was never able to break away as a contender in this year’s election. The same trend held true in 2012, especially during the general. What this boils down to is that in presidential politics, money isn’t as influential and that means the future President is uniquely capable of leading campaign finance reform.
So what can you do to make that happen? Register to vote! Alex Rybchuk (ME ‘17) and I will be setting up a table and carrying around ungodly amounts of voter registration forms. Take a couple minutes to fill it out and hand it back to us and you’ll be registered as a voter in New York! After registration, which ends March 25th, show up to the polls on April 19th or fill out an absentee ballot earlier and vote without even leaving your house! This election could very well be the difference between 20 years of record low turnouts and a revitalization of our democracy. I urge everyone to be a part of it.