In the 2022 midterms, the 100 largest donors collectively spent 60 percent more than every small donor in the United States combined, according to a Brennan Center analysis of publicly available data. (Small donors are those who give $200 or less.)
The wealthy have always wielded disproportionate power over American government. In 1895, GOP strategist Mark Hanna famously said, “There are only two important things in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” But money’s outsized influence has ebbed and flowed over U.S. history.
We are now living through another period in which moneyed interests dominate our politics to a dangerous degree. Wealthy donors serve as gatekeepers to public office. Billionaires alone — the United States has fewer than 700 of them — provided 15 percent of the funding for the most recent federal elections. Money doesn’t always buy election results, but it emphatically affects policy. Welcome to the second gilded age of money in politics.
How did it get so bad? Blame the Supreme Court, which has issued rulings blocking or undermining needed rules. Most recently, Citizens United has been the driving force. Small donors collectively outspent the 100 largest donors by a margin of more than three to one during the 2010 midterms. Citizens United was decided that year. The ruling did not say “corporations are people,” as it has been caricatured. It did, however, open the way to unlimited donations to super PACs.
Super PACs, which are barred from formally coordinating with candidates but nevertheless function as surrogates, spent just $63 million in the 2010 midterms. That number rose to $345 million in 2014, $822 million in 2018, and $1.3 billion in 2022. The infamous Supreme Court decision also generated a surge in dark money that continues to gather pace.
In this topsy-turvy system, incumbents fear a flood of allegedly independent money for a primary opponent. That’s one reason Citizens United has had such a calamitous impact on policy. Before 2010, key Republican leaders backed climate change legislation. After the ruling and the effective deregulation of campaign money, the GOP became the only conservative party in any major democracy to effectively deny the existence of the problem. Some worry that passionate small donors lead to polarization, but in fact wealthy ideologues distort policy even more.
Citizens United isn’t going away anytime soon. But there are solutions to this problem. States and cities are leading the way, creating innovative campaign finance programs to amplify the voices of small donors rather than attempting to limit the spending of megadonors. It’s a conceptual breakthrough in campaign finance.
New York City matches small-dollar donations to competitive candidates, and New York State has recently built its own matching program. Connecticut issues grants to candidates who reach a certain threshold of small contributors. Seattle provides its citizens with vouchers that can be directed toward a chosen candidate for office. The District of Columbia is trying a hybrid approach, deploying both a grant system and a matching program.
The latent power of small donors, which is starting to take flight in these pockets, can help swing the money-in-politics pendulum back to a healthier position. Politicians have already taken notice. Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance wrote an op-ed last week warning his fellow Republicans that they should improve their fundraising with small donors rather than rely so heavily on super PACs.
Vance is an unexpected messenger on this issue — billionaire investor Peter Thiel almost single-handedly catapulted Vance into the general election. They say hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Let’s hope so.