Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp – On the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, by Kenneth P Vogel, PublicAffairs, 2014, RRP$27.99/£18.99
There is a tension at the heart of democratic politics that is hard to resolve. In the electoral sphere everyone is equal. Both Bill Gates and the poorest pauper have the same number of votes to cast in each election. But by deploying their enormous wealth in political campaigns the rich have a far greater capacity than the average citizen to influence electoral outcomes.
In the US, many politicians from both the main political parties have long realised this discrepancy poses challenges for democracy. That is why restrictions on campaign finance go back at least as far as the early 20th century. The trouble is that such regulations can have unintended consequences that can reasonably be described as bizarre.
Big Money tells how massive contributions from a few ultra-rich individuals came to play a greater role in the 2012 presidential election than ever before. But the start of the tale goes back to a law passed in 2002 that was, paradoxically, designed to diminish the influence of big money in politics. The story also involves Barack Obama, who had long argued against the corrupting effect of large campaign contributions, becoming a consummate player in the game.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 put strict limits on the amount of money that could be contributed to political parties. In addition, it included other regulations, such as restrictions on the funding of television and radio adverts.
Several years of uncertainty about the legality of political funding followed, but this was clarified by two Supreme Court rulings in 2010. The most important of these, known as Citizens United, barred large donations by the wealthy to parties but allowed them to contribute to independent organisations instead. These groups, which became known as super-Pacs (political action committees), were not permitted to co-ordinate with the politicians or parties they supported.
The results of this legal shift were dramatic. Super-Pacs blossomed, campaign spending in the 2012 election surged to unprecedented levels and political consultancies enjoyed a fees bonanza. Traditional political parties were also undermined as much of the money and campaigning switched to the super-Pacs. The new organisations in effect became shadow parties themselves but were accountable to their donors rather than any membership.
Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election, was supported by the prototype super-Pac. Restore Our Future was nominally independent, as it had to be by law, but was set up and run by some of Romney’s former aides. It proved successful in raising tens of millions of dollars to support the candidate’s presidential bid.
Although President Obama condemned the Citizens United verdict in his 2010 State of the Union address, he had his own super-Pac support within months. For the Obama campaign team allowing the creation of such an organisation was the lesser of two evils: it was either that or risk losing the 2012 race to the well-funded Romney camp. Admittedly Obama had been supported by wealthy donors in his 2008 presidential bid, but the emphasis then was on getting smaller donations from grassroots supporters.
Kenneth Vogel, chief investigative reporter for Politico, the news organisation, does an excellent job in untangling this story. Much of the book consists of reportage, with him trying to attend secretive meetings between ultra-wealthy donors and electoral candidates seeking funding. Often he was barred from entering or ejected after being identified as a journalist.
He is commendably non-partisan in his reporting. Vogel sketches the shadowy fundraising worlds of both of the main parties. He also reports on the intense factional rivalry that sometimes exists within their respective camps. Republican donors, for instance, include fiscal conservatives, mainstream business people and social conservatives, and there are often heated disagreements between them on key issues.
But the book’s strength as a piece of reportage is also its weakness. It is unlikely that, with the passage of time, 2012 will be seen as the turning point that Vogel portrays. In retrospect it will probably be viewed as another step in a long process of retreat from mass politics, rather than as representing a fundamental shift.
It is a long time since the American public was actively engaged in the political process. The dominance of big money and professional campaigning is at least partly the result of this depoliticisation.
Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of ‘Ferraris for All’ (Policy Press 2012)