Is There a “Democratic Deficit” In The United States?


The short answer to that is no, though the New York Times’s recent answer to that was yes. The recent article is very well written and interesting, but I think the influence money has over politics has been overblown and the proposals the author (Michael Lind) proposes would make the problem worse.

Lind’s thesis is effectively this: “Politicians chosen by membership-based mass parties have been replaced by politicians selected by donors and sold by advertising to voters. … The need for candidates to raise large sums of money to run for office effectively screens out Republicans and Democrats whose views differ from those of the donor class, even if those views are popular with conservative or progressive voters.”

While it is true that fundraising is important in elections, being able to raise large amounts of money doesn’t ensure victory by any means. If so, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker would have won the primary (Walker had raised a large amount, comparatively speaking, at the time he dropped out). Not only that, but Lind forgets that campaigns that are popular with the base or have strong levels of support—like Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders—have done very well in fundraising from small donors, and Sanders occasionally out-fundraised Hillary Clinton during certain months, despite her strong connections to Wall Street. So Lind’s claim that candidates popular with the base have fundraising difficulties is simply incorrect.

Now, I am not saying campaign spending is unimportant—to a certain degree, it is—but in general campaign contributions seem to have little effect on electoral outcomes.

What I will say, however, is that I think Citizens United—the infamous Supreme Court case that protected unlimited campaign contributions to Super PACs—made democracy better.

Lind seems to think the donor class is some monolithic group with no differing opinions—that is why he says candidates can’t win if their views “differ from those of the donor class.” But, just like any demographic, there is ideological diversity among the wealthy.

Bill Gates, George Soros, and Warren Buffet generally lean to the left (and even then, to varying degrees); the Koch brothers lean libertarian and Shelden Adelson is a foreign policy hawk. Foster Friess, a wealthy Santorum backer, is extremely social conservative whereas Paul Singer, another conservative billionaire, is avidly fan of gay marriage. Wealthy donors disagree with each other, and that’s why unlimited campaign donations have made the system more democratic, not less.

See, before Citizens United, the two parties (Democrats and Republicans) had a duopoly over the donation system. An extremely interesting article by Foreign Affairs explains this in depth. Essentially, the authors argue it all began with the passage of FECA, the Federal Election Campaign Act, whose goal was to increase party influence over the donation system.

FECA limited the amount individuals could donate to specific candidates. Donations to congressional candidates were capped at $1,000 but were capped at $10,000 for political parties, giving parties ten times the campaign donation size. Donations to individual candidates were limited but donations to political parties exploded, meaning the parties had full control over the system.

Now, post Citizens United, Super PACs exist for everything. Every interest group can set them up, and now billionaires—who are an ideologically diverse group (and likely more diverse than most other groups)—can donate to any cause they like. The Kochs, Adelson, Friess, and Singer no longer need to all donate to the GOP; they can donate to any candidate (or cause) they like, with no cap, for any reason. Soros, Goldman Sachs, Gates, and Buffet can donate to any cause they like, too—they no longer have to donate to the party in order to get their thoughts across.

This means more individuals—not fewer—have access to funds than before. Lind doesn’t even mention this two party duopoly over the election contribution system. Citizens United, and the money and “special interest groups” Lind attacks has made the political realm more diverse, not less.

Lind makes many interesting points and I highly recommend reading the article. But, in my opinion—and it’s just that, my opinion—I think he is wrong. Limiting the amount of money in politics has the potential to reduce political diversity, not make it any better.