Money wars dominate the 2020 US presidential elections and continue to corrupt America’s already fragile democracy. The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the “Citizens United” case in 2010 drove a coach and horses through controls on campaign financing and invited ‘Super Political Action Committees’ (Super Pacs) to accept unlimited donations to spend on political advertising.
This billionaires’ charter has had unintended consequences, forcing able Democratic party candidates out of the current race, creating hostility between remaining candidates over funding and holding out the prospect of two billionaires vying to become the 46th President.
Campaign finance is being laundered all over the US, without transparency, in a process described by Celestine Bohlen in the New York Times as “legalised corruption”.
The now infamous “Citizens United” judgement also gave a boost to grassroots funding, which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both progressive hopefuls, have mastered to good effect by making a moral and political point about not being in the pocket of the super-rich. But compared to the flow of finance from wealthy donors and the giant corporations, this type of fundraising is small.
America has always been soft on regulating campaign finance. Campaigns are long – 18 months for this presidential election – and political advertising on television and radio is essential and expensive. The UK, like other European countries, has strict limits on campaign spending with agreed public broadcasts, but no paid political advertising on television.
People mere political fodder
Even accounting for the population and size differences between the US and the UK, the levels of campaign funding in the US are grotesque and pose serious questions about its democracy. What is happening bears no relationship to the high ideals of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 1863, when he said, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”.
These inspiring ideas play no part in modern US democracy. Instead, the rich and powerful conspire to make such ideas unworkable and make a mockery of the idea that elected politicians represent the people.
Corruption doesn’t necessarily mean that elected officials pocket the cash. The process itself is being corrupted and that is much worse. Spending by lobbyists, big business and individual billionaires, buying influence, privilege and access, leads to ordinary voters being sidelined and disadvantaged, both politically and economically. Ordinary people are losing out, mere political fodder, in elections being decided elsewhere. The Democratic and Republican parties are supplicants in this game, unable or unwilling to act.
The 2020 election is likely to be the most expensive ever, as digital advertising and disinformation campaigns attract more spending.
Previous years have been eye-watering enough. A staggering $6.5 billion was spent on the 2016 federal elections, of which the presidential election accounted for $2.65 billion, a sum larger than the GDPs of each of the four poorest countries in Africa, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Central African Republic and Liberia. In sharp contrast, the cost of the 2017 UK general election was less than $80 million.
Impressive candidates forced out
Differences between Democratic candidates over sources of funding are likely to become bitter, heated and very public. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, pursuing grassroots funding, are increasingly critical of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg for taking “campaign money from billionaires”. Most of the Democratic hopefuls are incensed by the actions of billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who is in the race but concentrating entirely, at this stage, on TV, radio and digital media, a tactic which has had a significant impact on his poll ratings.
Bloomberg has already spent a remarkable $350 million and could spend another $2 billion. Some political reporting suggests that, in or out of the race, he could even spend up to $10 billion to stop Donald Trump being reelected. With a possible $60 billion to his name, campaign finance is not a problem for Bloomberg. Both he and Trump spent $10 million each on 60-second adverts during the Super Bowl alone.
This is the nightmare and the tragedy of US politics. Billionaires could buy their way into the White House. But at the same time, other impressive Democratic candidates such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro have had to exit the race, with lack of finance being one of the main reasons. Other candidates may not have even entered the race because of the crippling costs.
Tom Steyer, another billionaire and Democratic hopeful, has a personal fortune of $1.4 billion. He hopes to spend a modest $100 million on his campaign. Other Democratic candidates are struggling to raise funds, with Sanders leading the other candidates by making the most of small donations.
Money, market and media define the role of that other billionaire, the President. According to official election returns, the Republican Party and Trump have raised significantly more money than the Democrats.
‘Death Star’ digital campaign
But it is the dark money and the political laundering of funds that is difficult to pin down.
Trump, the master of the tweet, has amassed over 110 million followers. Trump’s team have hinted that they are working on a $1 billion misinformation digital plan for his campaign, referred to by one Republican strategist as the “Death Star”.
Whether or not the Democrats and Bloomberg can match the digital masterclass being delivered by the Trump team remains to be seen; help from Fox News and Russian internet trolls can’t be overlooked. The President is likely to receive a substantial political payback, from the trillion-dollar tax cut for his wealthy friends.
They say money talks. So what are Trump and Bloomberg saying? If their recent tweets are an example, the verbal violence war is about to get a whole lot worse. One of the President’s latest tweets said, “Mini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy... he hates crazy Bernie”.
Bloomberg fired back, “We know many of the same people in New York. Behind your back they laugh at you and call you a carnival barking clown.”
Americans may get the best candidate that money can buy, but not the best candidate that America needs. In the spirit of this age of money for access, the Washington Post reported, that Trump was the guest of honour on Saturday at the Palm Beach estate of billionaire Nelson Peltz, where donors gave more than $580,000 per couple to support the President’s re-election!
American politics is a rich man’s world.