American political campaigns on both Congressional and State level are currently dominated by big money in the form of large contributions and donations from a plethora of actors. The inherent problem with campaign financing is the clash of interests groups and their respective agendas. In other words, most political donors — certainly the big ones — expect favorable policies in return for their generosity. As a consequence, American politics has been characterized by increased polarization and gridlock in the last decade. A sustainable future for a strong and healthy American democracy is one without the pervasive influence of money.
There have been several attempts to regulate campaign financing in the United States. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 represents one of the recent attempts to regulate campaign financing. However, a significant number of amendments and other major provisions in the act have been struck down by the Supreme Court on several occasions. The most recent example occurred in 2010 in Citizens United v FEC, when the Supreme Court affirmed that corporate personhood indeed grants for-profit, non-profit, and other associations the right to freedom of speech. The protection granted under the First Amendment allows some forms of political organizations to raise unlimited amounts of money and subsequently run political campaigns in favor of or against candidates running for office. In other words, the personhood of the corporation is expressing its opinion, which is protected under the First Amendment. Consequently, the number of so-called Political Action Committees (PACs) has increased dramatically since the landmark case in 2010.
The most controversial of these PACs are the Super-PACs. These types of organizations are not regulated in the same way as individuals wanting to make political contributions or donations. Rather, Super-PACs may conduct their own political campaigns in support of candidates and may also receive funding from both individuals and other corporations. There are furthermore no funding caps on Super-PACs, hence the controversy surrounding their role in American politics. Such an entangled system of actors, big money, and conflicting interests arguably reduces the decision-making power of political parties, which need to respond to their wealthiest contributors. As a consequence, many critics of the 2010 Supreme Court decision claim that American democracy is ‘on sale’ and that the super-wealthy have completely overtaken the political processes.
One notable consequence of the rise of Super-PACs is the polarizing effect they have on American politics. Indeed, there are certain limitations regarding coordination between a Super-PAC’s campaign and that of the politician(s) it supports. Nonetheless, this creates a strong incentive for the PACs to run negative campaigns about their candidate’s opponent. Even more worrisome is the fact that these political organizations are more likely to respond to their wealthiest donors because of the unlimited funds individuals are allowed to give. As a result, PAC campaigns tend to be more ideologically extreme and thus radically change the political landscape.
The way in which money has infiltrated American politics stands in stark contrast to one of the most foundational principles of democracy; one person, one vote. The interests of the rich are catered for, while the average American is left behind with a severely diminished voice. Moreover, PACs are notoriously known for their polarizing effect and their resistance against bipartisan compromises. The rise of PACs naturally cannot alone explain the increased polarization in American politics, but this trend is alarming in many ways. It is necessary to dramatically decrease the importance of money in politics and reclaim the democratic values that are vital for voter turnout to increase and for extreme ideologies to play a less visible role.
The evolution of campaign financing presents a significant pressure on the well functioning of our democratic processes and the equal distribution of representation among citizens. That is why CALPIRG, and more specifically its ‘Democracy for the People’ campaign, is determined to find sustainable solutions and lobby for necessary reforms. The aim of this activism is to spark concrete changes in campaign financing in Santa Barbara elections. In order to achieve this, CALPIRG has teamed up with several coalitions locally that are equally invested towards the same goal. The City Council election on Nov. 7, for instance, is an important opportunity to see how this trend is evolving. In any case, CALPIRG remains heavily invested in this cause, and urges both UCSB students and Santa Barbara residents to get involved.
Although financing caps might be the most obvious solution, this is a lengthy process. There are, however, other measures that have already been implemented in some cities. In Seattle, for instance, they have created the ‘Democracy Voucher Program’, which is intended to encourage small private donations from individuals. Each eligible Seattle citizen is given four vouchers, each with a worth of $25. The individual is then free to give the vouchers to any candidate running for City Council or City Attorney, and may also split them up as they wish. In fact, Seattle is the first city in the United States to experiment with this type of campaign financing. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which instituted the initiative in 2015, effectively wants to make the democratic process surrounding its elections more transparent, and more representative. By employing this type of campaign financing regulation, big money is reduced from the democratic process and puts the individuals on equal footing in terms of their contributions.
CALPIRG is actively working to get locally elected officials to implement the same voucher system in Santa Barbara. The experiment in Seattle has produced positive results, and we believe this model to be mature enough to be tested in local elections in Santa Barbara. In addition to this involvement, CALPIRG is also working on campaign funding caps, which is a more complex process that will require more time. Regardless of this, there is too much money involved in American elections, and in order for local democratic processes in America to stay healthy and sustainable, there have to be implemented measures. Alec Baldwin pointed out that ‘the campaign finance scandal in America is the global warming of American political life.’ This is why more American cities should experiment with creative solutions like Seattle. Political activism always starts locally, and that is why Santa Barbara should follow the example of Seattle and take the big money out of politics.
Kim André Qvale is an exchange student from Sciences Po Paris and a third year global studies major. Qvale is an intern at CALPIRG’s Democracy Chapter.