If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone argue that money controls politics in the U.S., I’d probably have six or seven dollars—which I could then donate to a candidate to buy power in the political process.
I’ve heard this argument so much because, for the most part, it’s true. Particularly since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission drastically loosened restrictions on campaign contributions, millionaires, billionaires, deep-pocketed corporations, and college students armed with gallon-bags of nickels have enjoyed dramatically outsized influence in government. This is an important truth to both articulate and work to change—the post-Citizens United status quo undermines the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ and by extension, our democracy.
Though it’s an important argument, it is both wrong and self-defeating when taken too far.
Even in the post-Citizens United era there are numerous examples of politicians breaking with powerful corporate interests to enact policies they think are best, like Barack Obama’s signing of the Paris Climate Accord or President Donald Trump’s imposition of protective tariffs. Yes, money plays a major role in the policy-making process, but it’s a far more complicated role than the argument “money controls politics” makes it out to be. At best, this argument is an over-simplification.
At worst, it’s an excuse for inaction. If we concede that politics is beholden to economic interests—and economic interests alone—then why even try to push for things like environmental regulation, gun control, or criminal justice reform? Liberals who subscribe to this line of thinking often develop a deep mistrust of government, creating an ideologically confusing situation that undermines one of the central tenets of American leftist thought—that government can and should be an active force for good in the lives of its citizens—and turns them into politically impotent bags of pessimism.
Moreover, the “money controls politics” trope, when used by the left, which it is more often than not, conceals a darker truth for those of us that identify as liberals: for the past 30 to 40 years, the conservative lobby has simply been better at influencing politics than its liberal adversaries, and that is not just because it’s been better funded.
In the 1980s, Charles and David Koch, along with a handful of other wealthy conservatives, began a comprehensive and audacious campaign to remake American politics. They donated to colleges and universities, started think tanks, and created schools and trainings focused on free-market economics.
They were influential because they were rich, but they also understood the American political machinery and worked tirelessly in pursuit of their goals. In recent years, wealthy liberals like George Soros and Michael Bloomberg have gotten into the game, but their operations are, thus far, not as sophisticated as that of the Kochs and their minions.
Since the Parkland, Flo. shootings, champions of the “outsized influence of money in politics” argument have turned their attention to the National Rifle Association. The argument goes that even though 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, it can’t pass because the NRA controls members of Congress with their checkbook.
This is partially true. Members of Congress are afraid of the NRA, which is why they often vote against highly popular bills; however, money is only one piece of the equation. The NRA has donated around $4.1 million to current members of congress since 1998—a pittance compared to other major lobbying groups or industries.
The NRA is so powerful, in large part, because they are very good at mobilizing a small but significant group of voters for whom gun rights is the most important political issue. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, spent $65 million on elections. It is yet to be seen whether he will be able to effectively challenge the NRA—it will take more than just outspending them.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign is a notable exception to this trend. Shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001, he announced plans for 200 new coal plants. The Beyond Coal Campaign managed to cancel 170 of them. They succeeded because they were able to mobilize people in cities and towns against coal plants for a variety of economic, medical, and environmental reasons. They were, and still are, active at city council meetings and in state legislatures, pushing their agenda in the language of the local community.
When a well-funded political minority exerts inordinate influence over elections and policy, it’s at least in part because of the laziness, apathy, or inefficacy of the majority. Rather than spend all our time bemoaning the influence of money in politics, we should both work to change our campaign finance laws and build effective movements to counter monied interests.
I don’t need any more nickels.