Political power in America has dispersed and democratized over the last 200-plus years. Where once only white men could vote and hold office, and in some states, only property-holding Christian ones at that, now just about every citizen eighteen years or older can. Although actual political power is not and has never been shared in any way close to this ideal model, it is shared more than in the days of planter and merchant domination. Democracy’s expansion, however, was not ceaseless; there have been periods of shrinkage—notably the decades around 1900. We appear to be living through another retreat. Money plays a key role in both episodes, though differently now than it did before.


Suffrage, voting, and general political involvement expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century as legal barriers like property requirements dropped, political parties organized, and freed slaves gained the franchise. By the 1870s–80s, about 80 percent of Americans of voting age actually voted in presidential elections (20–30 points higher than recently). Moreover, according to witnesses of the day, political campaigns stirred widespread popular attention and expression—torchlight parades and all. After 1880, political turnout, participation, and enthusiasm dropped precipitously. In the South, Jim Crow laws disenfranchised blacks. In the North, various “good-government” reforms changed the rules about who could vote (no newcomers just off the boat, for example), changed how people voted, and undercut the incentives for working-class immigrants to vote. The money part of the story is that reforms made it harder for political machines to pay off voters with public jobs, the proverbial turkey for Thanksgiving, kegs and entertainment on election day, and straight cash for voting the straight ticket. (See this earlier post for more.)

We are moving into an era where the direct influence of money on politics breaches new ground.

Although the voting levels of the late nineteenth-century have never returned, the base of eligible voters widened as women gained suffrage, the Voting Rights Act re-enfranchised African Americans, and the age of eligibility dropped. (Of course, you can lead eighteen- to twenty-year-olds to the election booth, but you can’t. . .) Expansions of civil liberties permitted more voices to speak up and expansions of media permitted more voices to be heard. Get-out-the-vote efforts like vote-by-mail, early hours, and DMV registration have tried to widen participation as well, albeit with uncertain effect. Some critics have argued that twentieth-century mass society crushed small-town grass-roots democracy in America, but my reading of the research suggests that such places were more often small aristocracies than mini-republics. In net, the political clout of average citizens got stronger during the last century.


The civil liberties and civil rights wave clearly crested a while ago and has receded in the last decade or so (unless you think that giving corporations the political rights of humans is an expansion of civil liberties; some people do). The Voting Rights Act has been weakened and the courts may well approve state laws that everyone knows but proponents won’t ‘fess up (wink, wink) are designed to shrink the electorate.

And then there’s today’s money, particularly the loosened rules on campaign contributions. The scholarship on the question, How much does money shape political outcomes and policies?, seems muddy. (I am talking here about money at the national level, not a local developer greasing the palm of a city councilman.) Direct bribery happens, but is not a major factor. The issue is huge campaign contributions. While it seems obvious to many lay people that contributions buy the policies that contributors want, researchers have cast doubt on that conventional wisdom. A noteworthy donation can get you the attention of a politician (as shown in this study), but it won’t buy you a decision.

To be sure, the rich do get what they want from politics much more often than other Americans do. A recent study by political scientists Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens (who led Boston Review forum on the topic in 2012) found, in Gilens’s summary, that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. . . .  [E]conomic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”

Gilens’s research team gathered data from over 1,700 survey questions asking respondents their policy preferences regarding, say, tax cuts, more education spending, and foreign involvements. The team measured the expressed positions of average-income respondents and of high-income (90th percentile) respondents on those topics. The researchers then asked which of those preferences for policy change came true within four years. Most of the time, affluent and average Americans took similar positions. When they did not, however, only the preferences of the well-off and, in addition, of organized interest groups, especially business groups, shaped the outcome. The views of the average voter seemed, in the statistical analysis, irrelevant. That the well off and special interests have disproportionate clout is probably not new, although Gilens speculates that the disproportion has grown.

Still, political scientists remain skeptical that campaign money explains why the rich win (Gilens is not one of them). They give several reasons why contributions do not matter as much as we might think: To start, money follows the positions of the politicians rather than vice-versa. (After all, you contribute to candidates whose positions you support rather than to candidates whose positions you think you are buying, right? The Koch brothers, in effect, say they do the same thing.) Also, politicians often coincidentally share the interests of their big donors. If there is a plant building fighter jets in a representative’s district, he or she would support building more jets for the local jobs that would provide whether the manufacturer contributed to the campaign or not. Often, campaign contributions just cancel each other out. Candidates may get money, say, from cable-TV companies and from content providers squeezed by cable-TV companies. And sometimes, conservative writers emphasize, the contributions may be “extorted protection money” business interests give politicians to ward off something bad. Finally, policymakers’ positions also line up with those of the well-off because they tend themselves to be well off, to share the backgrounds, experiences, and world-views of the advantaged in America. Their “common sense” is that of the affluent. (Here is one review of the literature on money and politics.)

There’s another reason why average Americans may not get their way in politics—not because someone is paying the piper, but because nobody is paying attention. For his recent book, American Public Opinion, Advocacy, and Policy in Congress, sociologist Paul Burstein took a random sample of bills proposed in Congress and looked at the debates that followed. In the great majority of cases, there was effectively no debate—and no action. Few Americans knew or cared about proposals such as indexing capital gains, vehicle weight limits on highways, standardizing bolts, and regulating solid waste disposal. The proposals’ fates were left in the hands of committees. Most policy decisions thus end up influenced by a few special interests if by anyone at all.

Such studies suggest, then, that average Americans, unless their attention is grabbed by a “hot” topic and they know what they want and they want what the elites want, typically don’t get what they might want. Nonetheless, democracy’s shortfall is not directly about the money—or it was not.

New Money?

Money may be starting to directly shape political outcomes again, although not the way it did in the nineteenth century when it purchased working-class loyalties. The Supreme Court, of course, has now opened wide the floodgates of both open and secretive campaign contributions. Also, there are now many more and more expensive items that need to be paid for—more media, more big data analyses, bigger get-out-the-vote efforts. We are moving, it seems, into an era where the direct influence of money on politics breaches new ground.

An anecdotal sign of this may be what some journalists called the “Sheldon Adelson” primary. Eminent Republican presidential hopefuls visited Las Vegas in order to, in Jon Stewart’s words, “kiss the scooter-riding ass” of a man who showed in 2012 that he was willing to give tens of millions of dollars to and single-handedly sustain the presidential candidate of his choice. (Back in the day, presidential candidates had to suck up to the bosses of political machines, not the owners of slot machines.) Other major donors, like the Koch brothers, Harold Simmons, Comcast, and Northrup, are more circumspect than Adelson is, but their clout is comparable.

Finally, let us recognize that the money issue cuts both ways politically. Liberal groups are using the new rules to pour money into campaigns (as in this case) and recall what a prodigious fund-raiser candidate Obama was. If the conservative plutocrats are getting (or blocking) policies against the wishes of average Americans, liberal ones may be doing so, too. Consider, for example, the role of mogul (and friend-of-Bill) Ron Burkle in pushing gay marriage and the late insurance executive Peter Lewis’s big donations toward marijuana legalization.  How fully democratic and populist do we want to be?