The increase in funding and spending with each presidential election term creates a cycle of elitism while simultaneously doing a major disservice to the principles of democracy this country was founded on. As the amount that is raised and spent during each election has grown exponentially over time, the integrity of each election is chipped away at. Even while accounting for inflation, the amount of money one is required to raise to become president is now 250-fold higher than it was during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. In recent years, the amount of money spent on a presidential campaign was over four times higher in 2012 than it was 2000. This year, the election broke records as the 2020 presidential election spending was over $6 billion, with millionaires and billionaires funding super PACs. While there are direct causes as to why the spending has gone up over time, the primary issue necessary to discuss is how money plays a direct impact on our democracy in action.
During President Theodore Roosevelt’s State of the Union address, he expressed his thoughts on the issue of corporate spending for political campaigns stating, “contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law”. The Tillman Act of 1907 was passed as a direct response to this ideology, while recognizing the potential danger of allowing corporations to play a role in federal campaigns. However, as time has gone on, values have changed and so have the legal practices surrounding campaign funding. In the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission case of 2010, the result of the ruling meant that direct corporate spending on election campaigns was legal, and from there, over the last ten years super PACs became a decisive factor in our presidential elections. Super PACs are able to raise unlimited amounts of money from massive corporations, unions, and individuals, and spend any sum of money they see fit to advocate for political candidates. Apparently, in 2020, 2,256 groups known as super PACs have reported total receipts of $3,116,086,116. Scholar Anthony Gaughan states that as super PACs continue to raise money with no contribution limits, their influence over voters as well as election outcomes outweigh the influence that the actual political candidates often have.
Even more interesting about the spending dynamic in presidential campaigns is that in recent years, those who have spent the most money on their campaigns have usually won, with Hillary Clinton being an exception to this in 2016. This highlights the idea that money is potentially the greatest factor in winning or losing presidential elections, regardless of political, moral, or policy beliefs that help to define one’s candidacy and campaign.
The ever-growing relationship between money and presidential campaigns can have negative impacts on our democracy, our citizens, and those who want to run for office. As explained by scholars, Berbower, Mclurg, and Holbrook, the reality of presidential campaigning is that due to the unequal footing that various campaigns are on, those who have lesser support from their party and have fewer funds are at a major disadvantage compared to more popular and better-funded campaigns. Therefore, not only is the lesser-known candidate at a greater disadvantage, but their message, morals, and political agendas are being widely ignored.
All of this begs the question, in our current day, are extensive networks and the agendas and interests of massive corporations, millionaires, and billionaires, being put before the average citizen? In reality, the answer is yes. The classic American dream that people are able to achieve anything they put their mind to, even a presidential nomination, continues to appear as a far-fetched, almost dystopian reality in this day and age. Instead, this opportunity becomes limited to those who are able to amass substantial networks of influential people, support from major corporations and unions, and millions or billions of dollars primarily through the help of super PACs. In the end, the average citizen is left behind to live in a nonrepresentational version of a true democracy.
While it is unrealistic to propose that super PACs be totally done away with in American politics, there has to be a limit to presidential campaign spending to help uphold the values of democracy. Authors of Legislature by Lot, John Gastil and Erik Olin Wright state, “democracy means rule by the people, not by elites”. In limiting the funding and spending of massive super PACs during federal elections in the future, the people and corporations who make up the top 1% of American wealth will not be able to sway the elections in the way they are now. Furthermore, the citizens of this country who are not within the top 1% of wealth in this country are able to truly decide their candidate without such large influence from super PAC’s and their funders.
Jasmine Mortazavi is an undergraduate student studying Law and Society at American University in Washington, D.C. She hopes to eventually attend graduate school for psychology.