The United States may be turning a corner in presidential politics. Although the election itself is more than a year away, the latest reports to the Federal Election Commission show that a wealthy oligarchy of donors has come to dominate campaign finance, particularly in the crowded Republican contest.
Fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the campaign so far, according to an analysis by The New York Times. This class of wealthy patrons, some with new fortunes and others of long-standing, is throwing money into campaigns, not of all which will end happily. But the pre-eminence of this clan of tycoons so early in the season is not a good sign.
The post-Watergate reforms sought to limit the corrosive power of money in politics, enhance transparency and encourage candidates to raise funds from a broad base of supporters. But new vehicles have become available that do the opposite, encouraging wealthy donors to make unlimited contributions, concentrating the power of the plutocracy and overwhelming the impact of small donors.
One of the most important of these channels is the super PAC, an organization that can accept unlimited contributions.
Super PACs, which must disclose donors, are supposed to be independent of the candidates, but in fact most are not. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2012 election, all the presidential super PACs together raised about $26 million by June 30 of the year before the vote. Now, at the same point in the cycle, they have raised $258 million, nearly 10 times more.
Moreover, the super PACs dwarf the actual campaign organizations in fundraising. The total the super PACs have raised is nearly double the more than $130 million the presidential campaigns raised in the first six months of this year, the center reports. The super PACs are the tangible result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign giving. A second vehicle, groups that claim to be social welfare organizations, is also worrying because the donations do not have to be disclosed to the public.
The Times analysis of FEC and Internal Revenue Service records shows that candidates are becoming dependent on a small pool of wealthy Americans. The analysis found that about 130 families and their businesses provided more than half the money raised through June by the Republican candidates and their super PACs. The Democrats also have some big-money fat-cats, but they also have a wider base of smaller donors.
What’s wrong with this concentration of wealth and power? The nation has often been ruled by elites, and rued it. But the potential to warp the political system is ever-present when such large sums are poured into politics. A quick scan down the list of the biggest donors shows that many of them would be affected by government policy under a new president — tycoons who have made their fortunes in private equity, hydraulic fracturing and oil field services, technology and other businesses.
Now they want to add king-maker to their names.