When we talk about the immense inequality that exists in America today, we often think about the massive wealth accumulation at the top of the income ladder, which has persisted since the 1970s; or racial and gender inequality, which have both been constant features of American life throughout our history. However, what we sometimes overlook is how political inequality reinforces both of the aforementioned problems.
One of the mottos of the Roosevelt Institute is “Who writes the rules matters.” If we are going to make that a reality, we first have to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to attain elected office or otherwise influence their public officials. This is where we enter the world of campaign finance.
American elections are funded by an incredibly small segment of society, with more than 40 percent of donations coming from just .01 percent of households. This has long been the case, but what we have seen is that with the increase in the cost of elections and the deregulating effects of the Citizens United decision, candidates are having to turn to wealthy individuals and groups more than ever. The problem is not necessarily that these donations are quid pro quo, but that they alter who is able to mount a credible run for office and the perspectives to which they are exposed.
When candidates launch a campaign, their initial donors often come from their social and career networks. That is one reason why lawyers and other professionals are so overrepresented in elected office: they simply know people who can afford to give them money. Blue collar workers, who lack these connections, are initially disadvantaged. Moreover, as Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut explains, the way politicians fundraise can be extremely distorting because they must talk to people whose concerns are not representative of their overall constituencies. For example, due to his state’s proximity to New York City, Senator Murphy is often in touch with people who work in the financial industry and may be concerned with keeping capital gains taxes low, even though this only helps a limited subset of people. Thus, the groundwork is laid for policy that is geared entirely toward the interests of wealthy elites.
As I write in this year’s 10 Ideas, one potential remedy is public financing of elections. Past case studies indicate that public financing increases the diversity of candidates and can decrease the power of interest groups over policy outcomes. That is why I am proposing an election voucher system in my home county, where each registered voter would receive public money to then donate to campaigns. This would expand the potential donor pool, thereby giving everyone political capital and improving the ability of candidates of all backgrounds to fundraise.
There are certainly other proposals that could serve to accomplish the overall goal of decreasing the power of the wealthy in the political process, but instead of arguing why this method would be better, I instead urge that we at least begin seeking in earnest to alter the current dynamic. Fighting political inequality is a monumental task and one that will likely never be completely remedied—especially by any one proposal. However, it is imperative that we at least try.