A radio host started an interview the other day by asking about “the $2 billion election” of 2012. I had to correct him. The commonly used $2 billion figure is a reference to an early estimate of spending on the presidential race. When the final figures came in, the campaigns, the parties, the political action committee and the various and sundry other vehicles for moving money into politics had spent well in excess of $2 billion. And that was just the start of it.

In our new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), Bob McChesney and I detail how the actual spending on politics during the 2012 election cycle was closer to $10 billion.

Yes, $10 billion.

How did the figure get so high? In the aftermath of a series of Supreme Court rulings, including but not limited to the decision in the Citizens United case, America’s wealthiest and most powerful political players were freed to flood the electoral process with direct donations to parties and candidates as well as massive spending on so-called “independent” and “dark-money” political projects. And they did not stop at the presidential level.

Billions of dollars were spent in 2012 on the fight for control of the House and Senate. Billions more were spent on state, local and judicial contests. And billions more on state and local referendum fights over issues as diverse as the labeling of genetically-modified food (in California) to the confirming of collective-bargaining rights in Michigan. The wealthiest donors and corporations did not win every election bet they made. But as they spread their money across the political landscape, they cleaned up where it mattered—from city councils to state legislatures to state attorneys general offices and judicial benches.

That’s how the Dollarocracy works. It constantly repositions, reorganizes and reasserts “the money power”—as the progressive reformers of old described it—at every level of governance. Ultimately, it makes the dollar more meaningful than the vote. That’s worth $10 billion. Or $20 billion, which is what election cycles will soon cost—if we do not respond with a reform movement every bit as determined, and every bit as forceful, as the progressive thrust that beat back the robber barons of a century ago.

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While politicians are running campaigns funded by corporations, John Nichols argues that they're also datamining average Americans to better target donors and potential voters.