What Oligarchy Looks Like?

A new report from Demos details the dominance of individual big-money donors in the 2014 congressional elections. (Total 2014 election spending is estimated to have exceeded $3.67 billion.)

The report’s revelations are grim, but unsurprising. For instance:

Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more.

The authors note that this statistic does not include the estimated $1 billion in spending by dark money groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which exploit their dubious status as “social welfare” nonprofits to hide the identities of their funders.

A look at how these numbers play out in individual races is useful for illustrating just how much some candidates depend on funds from the wealthy. The report notes that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the onetime candidate for vice president and future chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, reported receiving more than $5 million from large donors – and nothing (actually, negative $360) from small donors. (How’s that for “makers” versus “takers”?)

One might suppose that the result of this outsized election spending by the super rich is outsized influence in policy by the super rich. Demos does not suppose. The report’s authors cite the research of Brigham Young University’s Michael Barber and Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin I. Page – all of whom conclude that the interests of ordinary citizens have little to do with policy positions taken by lawmakers. Instead, “economic elites” and “business interests” hold sway – resulting, in the words of report authors Karen Shanton and Adam Lioz, in a “stark disparity between the system we have and the democracy we deserve.”

Is this what democracy looks like? Or is this what oligarchy looks like?

What good news there is, is that the public overwhelmingly supports fixing this broken system.

The hard work that we – and you – need to do in order to make progress on reforming money in politics has only just begun.

We’ll take incremental steps forward. We’ll stop steps backward. We’ll keep moving – and eventually, we’ll win.

We’re in it for the long haul. With our democracy at stake, nothing less will do.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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