A government for the rich [Commentary]

The super wealthy account for roughly 40 percent of the country's campaign contributions

May 27, 2014|Thomas F. Schaller

Political billionaires are in the news again. Yawn.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has pledged to spend $50 million in seven states to help Democratic candidates in this November's midterms. His political action committee spent $8 million last year supporting Democrats in the Virginia governor's race and the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

Climate science deniers who shudder at news of Mr. Steyer's spending can breathe easy: Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch spent or raised more than $250 million to oppose Obamacare and President Barack Obama's re-election in the 2012 cycle, according to Daniel Schulman in his new biography of the Koch brothers, "Sons of Wichita."

The Koch brothers' total spending was closer to $400 million — twice what the top 10 labor unions spent, combined — says The Republic Report, a project sponsored by the nonprofit organization Essential Information.

The wealthy wield great influence over our politicians and campaigns. Meanwhile, many of our politicians are themselves quite affluent. As reported in January by the Center for Responsible Politics, for the first time in American history a majority of all members of Congress are millionaires.

Differences between the congressional parties are negligible: The median wealth in the House was slightly higher for Democrats; in the Senate, the median for Republicans was a bit higher. Recent losing presidential nominees John McCain and John Kerry are (or in Mr. Kerry's case, were) both members of the Senate's millionaires club, and both made their money the old fashioned way — they married into it.

Adjusted for inflation, a million dollars isn't what it was a century or even a decade ago. So sure, at some point the Congress was bound to have a majority of millionaires. Yet, in a country where the 2012 median household income was $51,017 — and fell between 2011 and 2012 — there is something truly perverse about not only the rising inequality between the incomes and wealth of the masses and the elites who govern them, but the rising political inequality that follows.

In fact, rising income inequality is dwarfed by campaign contribution inequalities between the haves and have nots.

Between 1980 and 2012, the share of income received by the top 0.01 percent — that's the wealthiest one of every 10,000 Americans — more doubled from about 2 percent to nearly 5 percent, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Over the same period, the share of campaign contributions made by the top 0.01 percent rose even faster, from about 15 percent to more than 40 percent.

The authors explain that Republicans enjoyed a "slight advantage" in contributions from the top 0.01 percent during the 1980s. But Democrats overtook the GOP among the richest donors during the 1990s and 2000s, before the GOP reasserted its dominance in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. Again, big money is bipartisan.

The rise of wealthy donors predates the Supreme Court's recent McCutcheon ruling, which lifted the total per-cycle campaign contribution limits on individual donors. Indeed, as the 2013 study concludes, the rising share of donations coming from the wealthiest Americans had little to do with the law because the "legal framework for wealthy individuals to donate" was established by the Court's 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo.

If this pattern of concentrated donations from the wealthy preceded McCutcheon, there's little hope that concentration will abate — unless, of course, donors from the top 1 percent or 0.1 percent start giving much more, thereby thinning the impact of the uber-rich in the top 0.01 percent. For regular American voters with middle class wallets, however, such a shift would be akin to the "relief" one might feel by being squashed by two, one-ton elephants instead of one, two-ton elephant.

Last November, Americans celebrated the sesquicentennial of what is arguably the greatest political speech in our nation's history: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But President Lincoln's closing line is increasingly obsolete.

For we are fast transforming from a democracy that prides itself on a government of, by and for the people into a plutocracy based on government of, by and for rich people.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.


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