The Role of Money in Politics

 by Michael Frank

Primaries in American politics have often been referred to as “money primaries,” meaning that big money determines who the final candidates are.  Those candidates who fall behind their competitors in attracting large sums of money are forced to drop out of the race.  Money has voted and had its say, and registered Democrats and Republicans get to choose from among those who make it to the finish line.  

Sociologist Vivek Chibber usefully distinguishes between the two competitions that make up the electoral process; the first competition is for money and the second is for votes.  Each competition has its own audience, the wealthy for the first and the general electorate for the second.  The pitches that candidates make are tailored to these specific audiences, with the electorate not being privy to the pitch made to the rich.  Hilary Clinton in 2016 refused  to disclose how much she made for the speeches to her Wall Street backers.  The electorate gets to choose between those who have been pre-selected by the wealthy.        

This is the way things normally work but recently there have been two significant exceptions: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  Sanders relied on thousands of small contributions instead of big donors while Trump reputedly relied on his own money, however acquired.  Both managed to bypass the filters that would have screened them out in the past.  The rise of the democratic socialist and the lumpen capitalist was made possible by the political polarization and deep dissatisfaction with establishment politics in this country.

 Generally the powers that be have two main means of determining who the candidates of both parties will be and swaying the final outcome in presidential elections; money and control of the media.  Although they hedge their bets and contribute to both parties, there is usually a preference.  In 2008 Wall Street’s preference was for Obama, in 2016 it was for Clinton and in 2020 it was overwhelmingly for Biden.         

 Although big money poured into the Democratic Party in support of Biden, Wall Street was not disappointed that the expected “blue wave” did not take place.  A Republican controlled Senate and the resulting gridlock in Congress would create an obstacle for higher taxes and more regulation on business. 

This latest electoral cycle has afforded us additional insight into the role of money in American politics.  Both parties rely on “bundlers,” fund-raisers who gather large checks and then deliver them to the party campaigns.  An internal document from the Biden campaign described how its bundlers were stratified depending on the amount of money they raise.  A “Biden Victory Partner” had to raise $2.5 million, a “Delaware League” $1 million, a “Philly Founder” $500,000, a “Scranton Circle” $250,000, a “Unifier” $100,000 and a “Protector” $50,000.  Donors get to meet with Biden’s policy advisors and the biggest donors get access to Biden himself.  The meetings are private.

Before the elections there was considerable concern among Biden supporters that the US might be heading toward fascism if Trump won.  I did not share this view.  Formal or parliamentary democracy has served the country’s elite very well.  Despite the ever-increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, the absence of a strong social safety net and endemic racism, among other issues, the ability to vote for the president every four years and change the political party in office has been an important source of legitimacy for American capitalism.  There is no reason for the elite to give this up.  Historically, big business will opt for fascism under the conditions of a deep economic crisis when the existing political system and balance of power between classes make it impossible to implement measures that will restore profitability.  That is not the case in the US today.  

Finally, I would argue that the main interference in American presidential elections is from domestic wealth and not from foreign hackers.  Whatever the choice of the electorate, the rich win, whether it’s their first or second preference. 

Oaklandsocialist comments: Thanks to Michael Frank for this article, which was originally published in the newsletter of the retiree chapter of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY.  The importance of the big money donors and their links with the tops of the Democratic Party is one reason why it’s impossible for the working class to ever take that party over.  

Categories: politics

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