Corruption Elections Sam Pizzigati

You, Poor Voter, Must Stand Back and Watch as Billionaire Plutocrats Purchase Democracy

Regular people cannot, but the billionaire class can spend as much as their hearts desire to influence election outcomes.
Martin Falbisoner, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Sam Pizzigati / Inequality.org

Do you have a favorite candidate in the upcoming congressional midterm elections? Want to do everything you can to see that candidate elected? Thinking about opening your wallet in the campaign’s final days?

If you do feel so inclined, you’ll find out — as soon as you move to make an online contribution — that you can only open your wallet so wide. Federal election law sets strict limits on how much you can contribute, as an individual, to your candidate of choice. That limit now stands at $2,900 per election.

Contribute more than that and you’ll be breaking the law. And you could face some hefty penalties, nearly $22,000 or even more depending on the specifics of your oversized contribution.

Wait. How can ordinary Americans face substantial penalties for contributing too much to their favorite candidates when we regularly see headlines about the multiple millions America’s wealthiest are legally investing in our elections?

USA Today, for instance, reported earlier this month that U.S. billionaires have so far this election cycle dropped “nearly $675 million” into campaign coffers, “with almost all of that coming from the top 50 mega-rich givers.” Earlier this week, the Washington Post put the total 2022 federal-level campaign cash from the nation’s 50 biggest donors at $1.1 billion.

Campaign dollars from billionaire pockets, data from the researchers at Open Secrets show, make up over 10 percent of all the dollars spent so far in 2022. Some perspective on that 10 percent-plus share: In the United States today, we have three billionaires for every million adults.

Billionaires haven’t paid any federal fines for all these contributions. They can spend as much as they would like to influence election outcomes, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United decision, so long as they conduct their political business “independently” of individual candidate campaigns.

How does all this work out in practice? Consider the U.S. Senate campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker in Georgia. The biggest donor to Walker’s campaign, journalist Judd Legum points out, has been the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC run by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell’s Super PAC, in turn, gets its dollars from America’s super rich and the corporations they run, including $10 million each from private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and hedge fund CEO Kenneth Griffin. But we still don’t know the Herschel Walker campaign’s full billionaire story. The largest single donor to McConnell’s Super PAC — a “nonprofit” known as One Nation — can legally keep its donors secret. Those donors have so far handed McConnell $33.5 million.

No billionaire has done more to exploit the political manipulation of rich people-friendly not-for-profits than Charles Koch, a deep pocket who, notes the Center for Media and Democracy, “controls a multibillion-dollar fleet of nonprofits that he and other wealthy business people have built into a massive influence machine over the past 20 years.”

In the 2020 election cycle, the 28 organizations in this politically minded Koch network spent a combined $1.1 billion. The billionaire has shuffled his groups around for the 2022 cycle.

“Frequent shifts in structure often correspond with election cycles,” observes Center for Media and Democracy analyst Connor Gibson. “The changes help keep Koch’s dark money organizational structure opaque.”

The billionaire Wisconsin couple Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein share the Koch fondness for expressing themselves politically through multiple organizations. Their large donations this political cycle have so far totaled $70.2 million, not counting, the Washingon Post notes, any “direct independent expenditures” the Uihleins may have made.

Re-electing Wisconsin U.S. senator Ron Johnson has been, in the current election cycle, job one for the Uihleins. They’ve shoveled $5.8 million to his campaign through various channels. The Uihleins, all the while, have been rigorously observing the Federal Election Commission’s strict and meaningless limits on “individual giving.” They’ve each donated just $2,900 individually directly to the Johnson campaign.

The overall Uihlein investment in Johnson’s campaigning for office has, over the years, certainly had its rewards. In 2018 alone, ProPublica reports, “a federal tax break for pass-through companies pushed by Sen. Johnson and made part of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation saved Uline $43.5 million in federal taxes.”

Plenty of other deep pockets can point to similar payoffs from their political activism. America’s rich and the corporations they run, writes political commentator and former adman Thom Hartmann, poured $7 billion in the 2016 elections and, just a year later, collected from the GOP congressional majority they helped elect “almost $2 trillion in tax breaks and another trillion in forgivable loans with few strings attached.”

For the wealthiest among us, plutocracy does most certainly pay.


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Sam Pizzigati
Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press). 

4 comments

  1. “non-profits”!!!!! As good a term as “democracy”, and “freedom of speech” in the USA. How many of you have read the speech President Putin made, with its 5 hours of questions and answers, yesterday? How is is reported in your “free media”??? How does this president compare with Sleepy Joe? Lavrov vs Blinken?
    Perhaps ONE sort of world order is NOT necessarily the best for most of the world? Will the US democratic model spread???

  2. Voters are not so poor considering welfare entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Any politician not delivering welfare to the populace would not be reelected.

  3. Before you vote think.

    Why army of electoral zombies, despite all undisputed evidences of political capture and corruption of US political and electoral system by corporate interests still likely will go through meaningless ritual of another apriori rigged elections serving no other end but political self disenfranchisement from participatory democracy, individual expression of absolute submission to the ruling power of oligarchy and their security and intelligence apparatus , a biennial sacrifice to the political Gods of this abhorrent US regime of war, exploitation and death.

    They will keep voting for the same reason as millions of electoral zombies in every 20th century openly totalitarian regime, including Nazi Germany voted diligently and meaninglessly, always with so-called civic duty, patriotic propaganda twist to obfuscate brutality of their regimes and greed of establishment leadership.

    Hitler, Stalin, Polpot, Mao, Kim etc., all of them, before chosen day of diligently organized elections, many having what would amount to a primary season, where all people’s grievances were expressed, told their people how important is to articulate their democratic aspirations by act of voting on national representatives who would implement their collective wisdom and will while instead they implemented a sham of democracy reduced to anointment of illustrious leader and his henchmen.

    But still they voted, voted in millions in an ancient ritual of active submission of slave to powers via act of participation in ceremony of casting ballot, as symbolic sacrifice to raw power and opulence, a perverted form of communion of victims with their executioners.

    [In the US we have,] .. to use Sheldon Wolin’s terminology, .. a “managed democracy,” political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to control,” form of government that attempts to keep alive appearance of democracy while simultaneously defeating democracy’s primary purpose, self-government.

    There is no people’s self government on a ballot anywhere, whoever you vote for you actually vote for corporate dictatorship from local to global scale. So stop lying to yourself that you want change for better for all peoples. You don’t.

  4. Speak for yourself. True that many are in denial. True that many have not taken any responsibility to act or think. But some of us are trying to make change. without concerted thoughtful action that is difficult.

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