In just systems of representative politics, the representatives represent people. All the people. Not just the people with the right bloodlines, as in an aristocracy; not just the people of a certain religion, as in a theocracy; and not artificial lines drawn on a map with no regard for the number of people therein, as in the US Senate. History is littered with bad political systems. They are not hard to identify. They all, in some way, apportion political power to a small group that does not fairly represent the interests of all the people. We are supposed to be moving past these narrow, unfair systems. That’s the whole point of political progress. But America is having a very hard time weaning itself off of the sweet, sweet teat of plutocracy.
If you allow money to directly buy political representation in a nation with severe economic inequality, then political power will tend to represent the interests of a small group of wealthy people. The fact that this observation is obvious and unremarkable has not stopped us from falling completely into its trap. It is not really accurate to say that the people of America chose this system; rather, it was chosen for them, by people wealthy enough to build and maintain a political and social superstructure comprehensive enough to train, nurture, appoint and confirm a group of supreme court justices who would one day rule that corporate political spending is the same thing as free speech. You have to admire the shamelessness necessary to pull this off in the face of, you know, 2,500 years of post-Platonic political philosophy. Yet here we are. Not only have we allowed a smaller and smaller sliver of people to accumulate all the wealth, but we have also arranged our allegedly democratic political system in such a way that they can purchase all the power. Well done, everyone! It’s not just a national problem. It’s right in your home town.
Seattle is home to Amazon, one of the world’s most powerful corporations, as well as to a city council that has tended to have troublesome ideas like “the trillion-dollar corporation led by America’s richest man that is headquartered in our city should pay a tax to help house the 11,000 homeless people here”. When the city council passed such a tax on Seattle’s biggest businesses last year, it took Amazon less than a month to get it repealed, using economic threats and political spending. But that wasn’t enough. For the city council elections this year, Amazon poured $1.5m into a business-backed effort to elect a slate of friendly candidates. Though vote counting is still going on, it looks like Bezos and co fell short of their goal – the business slate picked up a seat, and the final tally may still show they’ve defeated their greatest enemy, socialist Kshama Sawant, but they did not succeed in seizing full control of the council.
Still, any crowing by progressives about this minor speed bump in the path of capital is a bit too pat. The head tax that Amazon defeated would have cost the company more than $10m per year. They spent $1.5m on this election to pick up one or two seats. That is not a meaningful defeat for a company this powerful – it is a data point. At these prices, Amazon could happily spend, say, $7.5m on the next election and still come out ahead in terms of the financial risk they face from the left. The corporate thought process does not dictate that the company should now slink away chastened. It dictates that the company should spend more next time. Elections happen all the time, but the system remains stacked in Amazon’s favor. Progressives will always have to expend vast amounts of energy organizing thousands and thousands of people to act in concert to maintain their tenuous hold on power. All corporations have to do is write a check. At this unequal work rate, one side is bound to get tired before the other.
An unfortunate truth is that political spending is a great investment. The best, perhaps. Stocks and bonds might only earn you 10%, but gaining control of the levers of government power can multiply your investment unimaginably. That is true for companies avoiding local taxes in the cities where they’re headquartered, and it is even more true the higher up you go in the government hierarchy. After every election cycle, we are treated to news stories portraying the (ever higher) amount of money spent on the races as a staggering sum. But that betrays a lack of perspective. The total cost of the 2016 national elections – meaning the race for the White House as well as all of Congress – was $6.5bn. For a group that exercises total control over a federal budget of more than $4tn, that’s a real bargain.
While we commoners gape slack-jawed at nine zeroes in the spending column, business interests know that there are several more zeroes to be recouped on the other side of the elections. As long as this basic math holds true – and as long as our laws allow it – money will control politics. And since the return on investment is so grand, spending will only keep increasing. This is the raw logic of capitalism that can never be overcome as long as our set of rules stays as it is. So yes, we will have to drastically change our campaign finance laws if we want to begin to overcome the gravitational pull of wealth warping our democracy. But if we ever want to get serious about that dream of a political system that represents everyone, we will have to do something more definitive: take all the money away from the rich.