“We’ve found through our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve the problem,” declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 as he announced the civil rights movement’s pivot toward the economic justice message of the Poor People’s Campaign. “We’ve got to massively confront the power structure.”
With those words, King spoke a language every bit as American as his “I Have a Dream” message of four years earlier. There are times for optimism and hope, and there are times for acknowledgment of an overwhelming challenge and the radical demand that it be addressed. Often they merge, and in these moments, great movements fundamentally redirect the nation. Tom Paine knew that. So did Frederick Douglass, and Jane Addams, and A. Philip Randolph. There is a rich American tradition of recognizing that some crises cannot be answered by tinkering at the edges of the problem. At such times, the people have responded with a boldness that ushered in new political parties or a New Deal, new understandings of the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of governments. And they have amended the Constitution, not once or twice but twenty-seven times.
After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, we began what would become a three-year survey of the state of American democracy, using the 2010 and 2012 election cycles as touchstones but focusing on a range of electoral, governmental and journalistic measures of democratic decay. The experience forced us to recognize the futility of timid supplications in pursuit of reforming politics and the media. We did this not as critics of the reform impulse, but as co-founders of a media reform organization who have maintained a long-term faith in the power of organizing and the potential of electoral politics to achieve consequential change. We retain that faith, along with a deep understanding of the value of continual prodding at the local, state and national levels. But we concluded that mild reforms are no longer sufficient to address a political crisis as far-reaching as any the nation has known.
The United States has experienced fundamental changes that are dramatically detrimental to democracy. Voters’ ability to define political discourse has been so diminished that even decisive election results like Barack Obama’s in 2012 have little impact. That’s because powerful interests—freed to, in effect, buy elections, unhindered by downsized and diffused media that must rely on revenue from campaign ads—now set the rules of engagement. Those interests so dominate politics that the squabbling of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, is a sideshow to the great theater of plutocracy and plunder. This is not democracy. This is dollarocracy.
Tens of millions of Americans recognize the crisis. Congress is held in ridiculously low esteem. Almost two-thirds of the public say their government is controlled by a handful of powerful interests. At the same time, confidence in the media as a check on abuses of power is collapsing almost as quickly as the circulation figures of daily newspapers.
Yet when the evidence of the decay of democracy is pieced together, as it is in our new book Dollarocracy, the picture is even more troubling than most observers and activists imagine. To wit:
§ The 2012 elections were the most expensive in the Republic’s history, with spending of roughly $10 billion. They did not cost $6 billion, as was broadly reported last November. That figure was based on a sound study of federal election spending, but it did not account for the massive infusion of cash into local and state contests, as well as judicial and referendum votes, by the same wealthy donors, corporations and interest groups that fund national campaigns. The full picture shows that the worst fears of good-government groups have already been realized.
§ The biggest fantasy promulgated by pundits after the 2012 election was that President Obama’s victory showed that grassroots activism can still beat big money. In fact, Obama and his supporters raised and spent roughly $1.1 billion, while Mitt Romney and his supporters raised and spent roughly $1.2 billion. Yes, Obama’s campaign collected more small individual contributions than Romney’s. But the Democrat’s campaign also collected more large contributions than did the Republican’s. Romney’s relatively slight money advantage came from the higher level of spending on his behalf by interests like the Super PACs. Bottom line: in 2012, big money beat big money.
§ Big money—especially big corporate money—gets what it pays for. It’s easy to blame the absolutist demands of the Tea Party movement (which itself benefits from special-interest funding) or right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh for gridlock in Washington. But the truth, as Sunlight Foundation senior fellow Lee Drutman notes, is that “big corporate money is often quite eager to see gridlock. Just ask Big Oil if it would like an active Congress on climate issues. Or ask hedge fund donors if they’d like an active Congress on the taxation of carried interest.” Even when the process moves, as on the healthcare debate in 2009–10, the result is a reform that steers federal dollars to insurance companies, not single-payer Medicare for All. It’s even worse when it comes to debates about education and austerity; with the frequent collaboration of media that buy into the most simplistic spin, politicians become indistinguishable as they promote cuts and privatization schemes that answer the demands of billionaire projects like those of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, Pete Peterson’s Fix the Debt campaign or the Betsy DeVos–chaired American Federation for Children.
§ The interests that pushed campaign spending to record levels in 2010 and 2012 are only getting started. That’s the overwhelming conclusion arising from our interviews with elected officials, candidates, campaign managers, consultants and directors of so-called “independent” organizations. Spending on federal races doubled between 2000 and 2012. It will no doubt double again far more rapidly—and keeping track of it will become far more difficult, as wealthy donors and corporate interests increasingly rely on the subterfuges of “dark money.” As this spending increases, the influence of small donors will decline because, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, “small donors make good press, big donors get you re-elected.” That’s why, even after his relatively disappointing 2012 season, billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson was greeted by Republicans in Washington as a conquering hero. They knew Adelson was right when he explained: “I don’t cry when I lose. There’s always a new hand coming up. I know in the long run we’re going to win.” And with a $26.5 billion fortune, it’s no sweat for him to keep placing $200 million bets.