The influx of hundreds of millions of dollars into US presidential elections has undermined the influence of Democratic and Republican leaders in choosing their party’s nominee. This power shift has enabled the campaign of party outsider Donald Trump, as billionaire donors and television executives can now make or break a candidacy before a vote is cast.
Media coverage of the current US presidential election extravaganza – begun in March 2015 and ending, hopefully, mercifully, in November 2016 – has focussed on the pathology of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who, unlike more traditional candidates, takes no pains to disguise his bigotry and cruelty. Overshadowed by the freak show, a significant development has gone relatively unexamined. Both Trump’s victory in the Republican primary process and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side signal a remarkable decline in the strength of at least one aspect of US political parties. A presidential candidate no longer need be a party insider, or even enjoy the strong support of party power brokers, to claim a party’s nomination.
To understand this shift, one must look to history. The US Constitution, an 18th century document, instituted a presidential system, with the chief executive answering to state-based electors rather than to the US Congress. State lawmakers then codified plurality voting, making US presidential and congressional elections into a series of “horse races” between individuals. This constitutional structure – single-member district plurality, allows for what has been, effectively, duopoly control (Republican and Democratic) of the electoral process, as voting for a candidate from a third, weaker party can be tantamount to wasting your vote.
In the late 19th century, the national power brokers within each party essentially chose their presidential candidates from amongst themselves. Party apparatchiks organised the campaigns and mobilised the voters, often through a system of favours and bribery; the candidates usually stayed home. This was the high point of party power, back when parties were “machines” capable of arranging 75 percent turnout of eligible citizens nationwide on election day (compared to under 60 percent today). Voter loyalty was strong, in part due to ethnic and religious ties, in part because elected officials rewarded constituents with tangible benefits – jobs, cash, government contracts – not simply lip service. In some states, the Democratic Party functioned as a benevolent society and employment agency for the urban, immigrant poor.
In the early 20th century, a movement to reform this “old-boys” system – root out corruption, weaken immigrant political power – led to the adoption of secret ballots and primary elections, wherein primary candidates could appeal directly to voters, ostensibly without approval from party leaders. However, voter discipline made an outsider candidacy unlikely.
Jump forward to the era of television. Beginning in the 1960s, political advertising was increasingly televised, making federal campaigns more expensive; airtime is not sold cheap. In the 1970s, Congress began passing laws to limit campaign contributions and expenditures, but, over the decades that followed, federal judges and political operatives found ways to keep the money flowing, often through political action committees (PACs). Federal governing was increasingly “pay-to-play”. If you wanted favourable action from a president or member of Congress, you wrote checks to a campaign fund. Despite caps on donations, the sums kept rising.
In the 1990s, the chase for capitalist donors pushed candidates from both parties rightward. Needing big money to compete against Republican fundraising, “new” Democrats, like Bill Clinton, made a calculation: abandon the traditional Democratic voter base and appeal to Wall Street bankers and brokers. Elected president, in 1992, Clinton followed the neoliberal script previously made popular by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and signed laws reducing banking regulations while undermining social welfare programs. This was politically possible because Democratic stalwarts – unionised labour, minority groups – had no other decent option in the duopoly. Democratic candidates could take those voters for granted.
By 2000, then, the two parties were, more than ever, competing factions, one moderate, the other extremist, of a single business party – differing on social issues, like abortion rights, but basically agreed on corporate welfare at home and imperialism overseas. Legislative agendas reflected the interests of wealthy donors rather than the voting masses, and younger voters did not develop the party loyalty of older generations. Thus, no surprise that today the number of voters registered as “unaffiliated” is larger than the number of members claimed by either party.
Considering all the money provided by well-heeled donors, you might think that party dictates would be more forceful than ever. You would be wrong. In autumn 1999, long before the 2000 party conventions, even before a single primary vote had been cast, the commercial media declared that the two nominees for president would be George W. Bush (R) and Al Gore (D). Scions of oil and politics families, the two had amassed far more campaign money than any other aspirants; they were now “inevitable”. This pronouncement, of course, brought more donations their way – wealthy corporate PACs often wrote checks to both candidates – allowing Bush and Gore to build large campaign organisations and buy up network airtime. The new reality was that any candidate with the name recognition and political connections necessary to attraction tens of millions of dollars could force himself upon the party.
The race for the Democratic nomination in 2008 further revealed the relative weakness of the party structure. The media’s designated Democratic frontrunner – again, before receiving a single vote – was Hillary Clinton. She had the name recognition and the political ties. She was also the favourite of the party power brokers. Indeed, she was one of them. But along came Barack Obama, a far more eloquent and charming candidate, who used a massive, internet-based fundraising operation to pay for perhaps the best canvassing enterprise since the era of “machine” parties. Essentially running against the Democratic Party leadership – raising his own money, securing his own volunteers, mobilising his own voters – Obama defeated Clinton.
Then, promising “Hope and Change” to voters, Obama rode his personal network to victory in the general election – but not before assuring Wall Street donors that he wasn’t serious about “Change.” For the entire 2008 cycle, the candidates, parties, and PACs combined spent $5 billion on federal elections. As the first duopoly nominee to reject taxpayer funding for the general election, Obama faced no caps on donations. He ultimately raised $750 million.
Enter the Great American Huckster. With major donors more important than party bigwigs, a handful of con artists have made running for president a full-time and lucrative job. The two most obvious examples are named, appropriately, Newt and Huckabee. Newt Gingrich resigned from Congress in 1999, after an ethics violation cost him the House speakership. Despite that walk of shame, he declared himself a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and again for 2016. His nominal candidacy brings campaign donations, book sales, speaking fees, and invitations to televised talk shows; he stays relevant in corporate media-land. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has behaved similarly, standing for the 2008 and 2016 Republican presidential nominations and pretending he would in 2012. He has scant chance of winning, but running boosts his brand.
The permanent campaigns of Gingrich and Huckabee are largely a product of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United (2010) ruling, which allows for unlimited donations to “independent-expenditure only committees” (Super PACs), so long as they operate independently of parties, individual candidates, and campaigns. In other words, a single person can give millions to a Super PAC to fund advertising to convince you to vote for Candidate A, so long as that Super PAC does not (wink, wink) communicate and coordinate with Candidate A. Put another way, Gingrich can ride billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s gravy train, spouting Adelson-approved messages, through the early primary season.
And Gingrich is not the only freeloader. PAC operators beg for contributions from special-interest voters, but often spend more on their own salaries and luxuries than on promoting candidates and causes. They use donations to troll for more donations, and build donor lists that they rent out to other campaigns. For some PACs, fundraising – fleecing donors – is the end not the means. The sophistry of Citizens United, as written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is on full display: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
How could Donald Trump – real estate con man turned television “reality show” host – stay away? His 2016 presidential campaign began as a shameless brand promotion and money-laundering operation. Donations to the Trump campaign, much of it from billionaire Trump himself, ended up paying for rent on Trump-owned properties and purchasing Trump-labeled products and services. He had little interest in organising an Obama-style campaign to canvass voters in far-flung states, probably had little interest in the daily grind of being chief executive. Hucksters don’t toil – that’s the point.
But a curious thing happened: television executives adopted Trump’s political reality show as their own. His racist, misogynistic, idiotic sound bites were the viewing equivalent of a fifteen-car pileup – if it bleeds, it leads – and viewers tuned in. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” enthused the television network’s CEO (estimated personal net worth: $300 million). “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Certainly, it was fun for Trump. A few months into his campaign, he observed, “When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 100% Trump, so why would you need more Trump during the commercial breaks?”
An estimated $2-3 billion worth of free media for Trump, a Republican field overcrowded with money-grubbing, look-a-like pretenders, and voters sick of politics-as-usual added up to Trump securing the Republican nomination. The party leadership, who likely wanted docile Jeb Bush, were stuck with the megalomaniac. Daily phone calls from the Republican National Committee chairperson, and the threat of decreased party support, have failed to keep the nominee “on message”.
The Democratic race was also startling. Party insider Hillary Clinton, once again the presumptive nominee, was beneficiary of over $1 billion worth of free advertising from television coverage. But she found an unexpected challenge in Bernie Sanders, who boldly called himself a socialist – a label which, in the USA, evokes communist totalitarianism more than it does Nordic democracy. While Clinton seemed to offer the usual neoliberalism, Sanders promoted a progressive agenda of regulation and reform. His stand against corporate power – he rejected Wall Street and Super PAC donations – attracted a record number of small, individual contributions. In the end, though, he couldn’t overcome corporate media’s initial disdain, Clinton’s support among black voters, and a weighted primary process – the latter perhaps the last remaining advantage of party insiders.
To summarise, television (and now internet) messaging, purchased by massive campaign coffers or provided free by network programming, has undermined the preeminence of party connections. As a result, big donors and television executives – who owe nothing to voters – have more influence on presidential elections than party leaders. Following the neoliberal model, capitalist greed and deregulation (of equal-time broadcasting and campaign financing) have hollowed out political institutions which, however flawed, once provided some service to the masses. Regarding presidential elections, the parties still function as nominating structures, but control of that process goes on auction every four years. The media conglomerates sell advertising space, the big donors buy candidates, the money’s rolling in and this is fun. The major issues of the day – war, poverty, climate change – go mostly undiscussed. The fun, of course, relies on the complaisance, alienation, and ignorance of US citizens, their vulnerability to superficial rhetoric, their failure to organise a popular nonviolent movement, their acceptance of electoral authority. As an entity of influence in presidential elections, the party – Democratic or Republican – exists mostly in the minds of voters.
Featured image courtesy of: AP Photo/LM Otero
About the Author
Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College, in Mission Viejo, California. He is also a playwright and novelist. His book, Peace Lessons, is, according to one reviewer, “the best introduction to peace studies.” His recent essays, including “Presidential Elections Need Not Matter So Much,” can be found at transcend.org/tms.