Bernie, Billionaires, and PACs: Campaign finance and the 2016 presidential election

With the 2016 presidential race in full swing, top fundraisers are predicting that candidates and advocacy groups will spend a whopping $5 billion dollars on the 2016 campaign—more than doubling the 2012 haul of $2 billion.

Ahead of the primaries, Democratic and Republican hopefuls are jockeying for position as the wealthy elite carefully vet candidates and decide who to back. Unchecked campaign spending is nothing new for American voters who are sick and tired of seeing elections decided long before they enter the voting booth—by the Koch Brothers, the Walton family, Sheldon Adelson, and a handful of other billionaires and corporate lobbies.

In a surprisingly candid moment, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump summarized the problem while campaigning in New Hampshire, saying, “He [Jeb Bush] raises $100 million, so what does $100 million mean? $100 million means he's doing favors for so many people, it means lobbyists, it means special interests, it means donors. Who knows it better than me? I give to everybody. They do whatever I want. It's true.”

Just how out of control is this spending? Unlike previous elections, the vast majority of this money is flowing into “super” political action committees, or super PACs, which are groups campaigning for a particular candidate or set of policies. Unlike regular PACs, which have been around since the 1940s and are subject to some Federal Election Commission (FEC) spending limits, there are no limits on the money super PACs can raise and spend on behalf of a particular candidate, party, or political issue.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign contributions, reports that, “A new type of PAC was created after the US Court of Appeals decision in Speechnow v. FEC in 2010. These PACs make no contributions to candidates or parties. They do, however, make independent expenditures in federal races—running ads or sending mail or communicating in other ways with messages that specifically advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate. There are no limits or restrictions on the sources of funds that may be used for these expenditures.”

Through the first half of 2015, $400 million had been raised by these groups and others, marking the fastest fundraising start to any presidential contest. Most of these donations went to Republican candidates, including a substantial $11.3 million dollar donation made to several GOP contenders by Robert Mercer, Co-chief Executive of Renaissance Technologies.

What About Hillary and the Democrats?

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton was the recipient of several large donations as well, notably $1 million from George Soros and another $1 million from award-winning Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. This is in keeping with polling data that shows Clinton is the favored candidate among millionaires. According to a CNBC poll released in May, 53% of American millionaires said they would vote for Hillary. As far as corporate donations go, big oil has already poured $150,000 into pro-Clinton PACs as have financial giants such as Morgan Stanley with $132,923, JPMorgan Chase & Co with $99,503, and Bank of America with $93,759. All of this before the Iowa caucus, meaning more large donations are yet to come. Clinton entered 2016 with some $100 million in her campaign war chest.

This demonstrates yet again that the Democrats, while rhetorically presenting themselves as “friends of the American worker,” are in fact bankrolled and controlled by finance capital and the superrich. It follows that the Democratic Party is not the “lesser of two evils” as it is commonly presented, nor is it an actual party. It is a fundraising machine used by a segment of the ruling class to carefully vet candidates amenable to their policies. Those who challenge this overarching mandate with modestly progressive policies (e.g., Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Kucinich) are driven out as pariahs or relegated to positions of irrelevance within the party.

Bernie Sanders, a self-described “populist progressive,” stands apart from the other candidates due to his many years as an “independent socialist.” He has awakened millions to political activity, especially the youth, with a platform that includes free college education, forgiving student debt, and a $15 per hour minimum wage. Unlike his competitors, the fiery Sanders, a supporter of “Scandinavian-style socialism,” has largely relied upon grassroots funding from more than 2.3 million individuals, many contributing small sums of just $10, $20, or $50. He enters 2016 with roughly $40 million.

Despite this broader base of support, Sanders has received far less media exposure than other candidates—Trump has 23 times the coverage—even though he has lit up the campaign trail with record-breaking crowds at public events, including 25,000 attendees at a single rally in Boston. He has already come under pressure from the party machine—see the recent DNC voter information debacle—and the better he does in the early caucuses and primaries, the more relentless the pressure will be. He has already moderated some of his positions as he seeks to prove to the party leadership that he is “electable” and will stay within certain limits safe for the party and the capitalist system.

Sanders’ popularity has sent a shock through the Clinton camp, but it is still Hillary’s nomination to lose, given her commanding financial lead. This is yet another example of how US elections are contested only among members of a small oligarchy who spend billions for social media experts, pollsters, advertising, and other promotions to heavily influence the outcome of elections. Opinions and attitudes of the working class majority are an afterthought at best and historically have had a statistically insignificant impact on the outcome of elections or actual policy. (See the illuminating Gilens and Page study for more data on this point).

Which Way Forward?

With the US electoral system clearly dominated by the ruling class, it’s no surprise that the majority of Americans are fed up with the status quo. Some hold their nose and choose “the lesser of two evils” in the voting booth, while millions more simply don’t vote, knowing instinctively that it is a pointless exercise in determining which candidate, or party, will start imperialist wars abroad while carrying out vicious austerity at home.

The good news is that most people are already awakened to the colossal problem at hand. Regardless of political affiliation, or participation in elections, Americans largely reject the status quo, with 84% saying that money has too much influence in politics.

With elections flooded with, and controlled by money from from big business, the salient question is, of course, which way forward? What reforms, if any, can fundamentally change US politics to create a truly transparent, fair, and democratic electoral system?

Amend the Constitution?

Move to Amend, a grassroots activist coalition with more than 300,000 online supporters, is in favor of a constitutional amendment stating, “money is not speech, and human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

They correctly point out that the institutions of the bourgeoisie—namely the Supreme Court—have consistently sided with the rights of corporations over the rights of living, breathing human beings. The precedent of corporate personhood was established as far back as 1886 in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Since then, numerous Supreme Court decisions, including Buckley v. Vallejo (1976), Citizens United v. FEC (2010), and McCutcheon v. FEC (2013) have expanded the rights of campaign donors, making elections an unfettered auction house where candidates and policy are sold openly to the highest bidder.

Amending the US Constitution along these lines is improbable at best and reflects a strategy that views the state as class-neutral, i.e., an impartial arbiter that governs fairly and accurately reflects the opinions and attitudes of society. In reality, the state is a tool of the bourgeoisie used to subordinate the working class to its will through its police, prisons, congress, and courts, including the US Supreme Court. Petitioning bourgeois institutions—which are firmly in the hands of the ruling class—is an ineffective exercise because the working class does not determine how the state is run and has very little influence on the legislation governing society. Thus, overturning previous Supreme Court decisions, amending the constitution, or passing a slew of new campaign finance laws to reverse course is highly improbable, if not impossible, given the current alignment of power.

It’s Much More than Just Supreme Court Decisions

The problem is of course much larger than “special interest” money and a handful of Supreme Court decisions. In fact, the simple act of voting, which is supposed to be an inalienable, uncontroversial bourgeois democratic right is actually quite difficult, if not impossible to exercise for large segments of the population. For example, laws that bar or delay ex-felons from voting prevent more than 5.85 million mostly black Americans from casting a ballot. Additionally, voter ID laws in many states create a financial hardship for innumerable potential voters. According to the ACLU, voter ID laws overwhelmingly hinder “black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities—to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot.”

Once at the polls, hundreds of thousands of people in mostly lower income voting districts may face long waits. No, this is not impatient millennials complaining about a twenty minute wait. We’re talking 5, 6, 7, or more hours just to pull a lever, or press a button. In the 2012 election, some Florida voters waited eight hours—an entire working day—just to cast their ballot. Who can blame someone for turning away given these absurd conditions? An analysis conducted by Ohio State University Professor Theodore Allen and The Orlando Sentinel concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting in the 2012 election because of the long waits.

Throw in the anachronistic and reactionary electoral college and uncontested gerrymandered districts and you get a more complete picture of how voting in its current form is virtually meaningless or impossible to exercise for millions of Americans.

When all else fails, voters can count on voting machines to break, malfunction, miscount, or lose their votes altogether. (Remember Bush v. Gore 2000 and the debacle in Ohio that led to thousands of lost votes in 2004!). Forty-three states will use voting machines that are at least 10 years old in the 2016, many perilously close to breaking down, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

In short, it’s not one, two, or three unfavorable Supreme Court decisions that must be overturned, it’s an enormous number of hurdles—some larger than others—at the state and federal levels that must be rolled back in order to create, fair, easy, equal, transparent, and accessible voting in the US.

The working class cannot reform what it does not control, and cannot control what it does not own. The first step toward controlling our destinies is to secure genuine representation for the working class. To achieve this we must fight for an independent, mass workers’ party organized by the labor movement, which must break its longtime unholy alliance with the Democrats.

Lacking a class-based understanding of how society is structured, groups like Move to Amend correctly identify only part of the problem and make the mistake of lumping labor unions into the same category as corporations, which they believe must be subject to the same campaign finance restrictions, stating, “Our perspective is that no ‘artificial entities’—non human beings—should have rights spelled out under the Constitution. This includes unions and nonprofit corporations.”

We unequivocally disagree. Spending restrictions on the labor movement would substantially curtail the working class’s fight against corporate and oligarchic domination of elections and policy. Restrictions on the labor movement mean restrictions on the only meaningful bulwark against austerity and reaction. In this regard, the labor movement would be further restricted in its ability to fight draconian legislation that cuts public spending for education and important social programs, as well as reactionary laws against workers, the poor, immigrants, and refugees.

Furthermore, restricting corporate lobbying (if such a thing is possible under capitalism) would not end the principle antagonism between capitalist class and working class, which is the fundamental contradiction built into capitalism, which Marxists seek to end. The labor movement is at low ebb and has been crippled by decades of pro-capitalist class collaboration. Reenergizing it through an independent political party is, of course, not a panacea in and of itself, but rather a first, necessary step toward that end.

How a Labor Party Can Challenge the Status Quo

So-called third parties have long been considered a “wasted vote,” or a spoiler in close elections. However, the composition of political parties, and their policies, are a reflection of the class balance of forces in society. As the late writer Gore Vidal opined, “the US has one property party with two right wings: Democrats and Republicans.” This assessment is correct for a given historical period, but as objective material conditions change so do the number and composition of political parties in society. Toward that end, third and even fourth parties played a consequential role in politics as this country grew and changed after independence from the British Empire in 1776. Given mass voter dissatisfaction with the abysmal policies of the Democrats and Republicans, who are organically incapable of showing a way out of the crisis of capitalism, the objective conditions are ripe for breaking the stranglehold of the two parties that have dominated politics since the Civil War.

Aside from a handful of eccentrics like former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, few independent candidates have garnered much attention or support in recent elections. This boils down to a lack of union support and organic links to broad layers of the working class. Although only 10% of US workers are unionized, labor unions still wield power through their endorsements, funding, and importantly, through their large concentration in key US industries such as education, telecommunications, utilities, shipping, and transportation.  

Despite their numerically weakened position at present, unions still have enormous potential clout. For decades they have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into electoral politics, mostly to Democratic candidates. In the 2012 election cycle alone, SEIU gave $25.8 million, the United Auto Workers gave $13.8 million, and the Carpenters and Joiners Union gave $11.9 million to Congressional and Presidential races. Imagine the impact that money would have if labor broke from the Democrats and we ran our own candidates for office. Union halls, workplaces, and college campuses would be electrified if people saw truly independent candidates running on a working-class program in local, state, and national elections. It would be a game changer.

Critics will be quick to protest: “Building a labor party in the US was tried several times before and failed!” Indeed, most recently, Tony Mazzocchi and a handful of labor and socialist activists tried in the mid-90s to establish a labor party. It garnered some support, but failed in part because the economic conditions were more favorable at that time, and above all because it failed to win broad union support and had a limited electoral strategy. With Obama and the supposed left wing of the Democratic Party exposing themselves as a party of austerity, people are quickly losing patience. Similarly, the union rank and file is growing increasingly impatient with the ossified union bureaucracy, which is running out of deals to strike with the ruling class as economic conditions continue to stagnate and fester years after the great recession of 2008.

The Objective Conditions are Favorable

These conditions have a clear impact on the attitudes of Americans. A majority of US adults—58%—say a third US political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties “do such a poor job” representing the American people. Congress has an abysmal 13.2% approval rating, while nearly 80% think the US is still in a recession, despite the near-constant drumbeat from economists and pundits to the contrary. It makes sense, then, that 47% of voters say that they would vote for a socialist, with an astounding 70% of young voters (ages 18–29) saying they would support a socialist candidate.

All of this clearly demonstrates that the tectonic plates of society, while seemingly motionless, are most assuredly moving beneath the surface, poised for a colossal shift. Nature abhors a vacuum, and necessity is the mother of invention. We are at the beginning of the beginning in terms of seeing a viable mass workers’ party emerge. Occupy, the Wisconsin union uprising, Moral Mondays, Fight for $15, and Black Lives Matter are the early stirrings of something much larger. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges ahead, but neither should we be timid or overly cautious in our pursuits. A sober appraisal of the political landscape shows a disillusioned, restless, and frustrated working class that is beginning to question and challenge the “way it’s always been.” No matter who wins the 2016 presidential elections, the future will look very different from today.

Armed with a genuine socialist program that challenges the economic and political rule of big business, the working class can and must elect its own leaders and begin to wage a concerted struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society.

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Source: Bernie, Billionaires, and PACs: Campaign Finance and the 2016 Presidential Election

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