Fighting Concentrated Money

Martin Gilens offers a damning criticism of our system of government: except under quite particular circumstances, policymakers act on the preferences of the very affluent and not on those of other Americans. Once again, government of the people, by the people, and for the people is gravely threatened.

Presume that Gilens is correct in his assessment and that economic inequality translates into political inequality in America. There are three broad strategies of response to this problem.

The most common is to try to insulate the political process from the influence of money through campaign finance measures such as limiting the extent of private contributions or through public financing of elections. Many reformers focus their efforts on insulation because it would be wonderful to build a wall separating private money from public politics. In the United States, however, money is like water: it finds the cracks in the wall. Furthermore, with the first Obama campaign abandoning the public financing option early on and then the Citizens United decision, reformers these days have fewer allies and bricks with which to build.

A second strategy shifts the medium of politics to enable those with less money to communicate their message. Money is so important to politics in part because political campaigns reach voters largely through television. It is very expensive to buy and use TV time, especially when effectiveness requires buying more than the other side. But not all media are as sensitive to resource inequalities as television. Al Gore has argued that the Internet might save democracy because communication on the Internet does not require the vast resources of TV advertising.

Discovering effective ways for 21st century civic engagement is our most urgent task.

In just the past year, Internet populism seems to have come of age. We have seen remarkable social media campaigns, often launched with few resources, that touch widespread moral sentiments and translate those sentiments into political action with blinding speed and remarkable reach. Earlier this year, the advocacy group Invisible Children produced a 30-minute documentary, Kony 2012, that reached 100 million YouTube and Vimeo viewers in just a few days. After Trayvon Martin was shot, his parents started an Internet petition calling for an investigation. It garnered more than 2 million signatures, and eventually a special prosecutor was appointed and brought charges of second-degree murder. In January Planned Parenthood launched a social media campaign against the Susan G. Komen foundation’s decision to defund them. Just days later Komen reversed its decision and board members resigned. Perhaps most dramatically, a widespread Internet campaign forced the abandonment of the Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property legislation that had previously enjoyed extensive bipartisan support.

These examples suggest that those who lack resources can express themselves effectively on the Internet and sometimes prevail in politics. As the Internet matures as a political medium, however, it may amplify resource inequalities—just as television does today—if only the best- produced and distributed messages draw millions of views and clicks.

The third strategy is to build the countervailing power of organized people to oppose the force of concentrated money. This strategy involves creating lasting popular organizations composed of the poor and middle classes to advocate for the policies they distinctively favor, such as employment protection, progressive taxation, and corporate regulation. As with the first and second strategies, building countervailing power is not easily done. Our familiar models of such power—trade unions, fraternal civic organizations, civil rights–oriented religious congregations, even local political party organizations and political clubs—have faded and perhaps become obsolete. It is unclear what the modes of popular mobilization in 21st century American politics will be, or if they will be.

Perhaps last year’s Occupy movement provides an indication. A rebirth of that surge of youthful political energy, or a descendent that is better organized and more articulate, would help to rectify the political inequality that plagues American politics. Indeed, there is no more urgent task than discovering effective methods for 21st century civic engagement, which incorporate those who now consistently lose in politics. Without savvy countervailing mobilization, the sickness that Gilens has diagnosed will spread and eventually kill American democracy.