People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.
It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.
However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”
There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.
Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:
“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”
Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:
“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”
If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:
“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!”
See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.
Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.