We know that many foundations sponsor candidates’ forums and publish issue papers to help inform the voting public. But grantmakers who care deeply about citizen engagement, who are concerned about historically low levels of voter participation, have other options they can explore.
They can, for example, dedicate at least part of the 2012 election cycle to helping advocates introduce democracy to the United States.
This is much harder to do than it sounds. The buying of elections with Big Money (whatever its source) was already commonplace before the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
In contemporary congressional races, for example, the biggest spender has almost always won. If you consider all congressional elections with at least two general election candidates during the last six election cycles, the candidate with the largest war chest won 8 out of 10 Senate races, 9 out of 10 races in the House. These figures do not reflect the very high cost of being able to run in the first place, much less successfully. It’s no accident that 47 percent of congressmen (250 members) are millionaires.
The influence of the new Super PACs is yet to be determined. But the plain old vanilla political action committees follow a familiar pattern. Of the top ten PACs (measured by total giving in the 2012 election cycle), 8 represent corporate interests, 2 represent labor. The data are consistent and overwhelming.
I remember speaking with a former Cuban political prisoner who came to the United States during the Mariel boat lift. She was grateful for the freedoms she enjoyed in this country but was shocked by the degree to which money bought political influence in the States. Aquí por dinero hasta baila el gallo, she told me—in this country, money can even make the rooster dance. The rooster certainly, and a significant number of featherless bipeds as well. Years later, I was not surprised to hear one DC city council member attempt to silence a health advocate by informing her that “no politician had ever been elected by being a champion for the poor.”
I’ll leave for another day the quality and independence of our mainstream news sources; our need for greater media literacy; and the erosion of our ability to engage in thoughtful, informed political debate and deliberation. They add to the incongruity of the coming spectacle—the trotting out on stages across America of Candidate Products™ it took many years and many millions of dollars to bring to market.
While Foundations might not have the resources to shift the political discourse in this country during the coming year, they can at least help liberate us from the illusion of free and fair elections.
I urge my fellow grantmakers who care about democracy in this country to use 2012 as a time for study and reflection on the influence of money in policymaking. I think we’d be surprised how often an issue we had championed had been bought out from under us by powerful interests; how often we had squandered millions of dollars in donor contributions by failing to anticipate some simple but uncomfortable political realities.