Democrats chalked up their defeats in the recall elections held earlier this year to one thing . . . money. But with Barack Obama safely returned to the White House, Democrats are warming up to the money game in a big way as they look ahead to the 2014 elections. No longer do they see Super PACs and dark money as necessarily bad things.
They can't win over the long haul playing the game this way. I don't say this because I think the really big money flows only or even mostly to the Republicans (it doesn't) or because I agree with the mainstream media consensus that big money lost in the 2012 elections. On the surface it might appear that the likes of fat-cat, right-wing donors like casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson lost because he spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million on five races and his candidate lost every race. Overall, something like $6 billion was spent on federal elections that returned the same president and same leaders in both houses of Congress.
One year does not a trend make. Big money wins more than its share of elections. Candidates backed by Sheldon Adelson and his ilk win more often than not, Scott Walker being a very prominent close-to-home example. But big money wins even when it loses. It wins because of the way it has distorted the policy agenda, the way it dictates what is even debated in the halls of Congress and in state capitols. And this manner in which big money's power is manifested hurts Democrats considerably more than Republicans.
If Democrats don't figure out a way to break free of the political money trap, there is little hope for turning around policies that are leading to growing income inequality here in Wisconsin and across the country. When is the last time there has been a meaningful debate on Capitol Hill or in Wisconsin's legislature about poverty? The ranks of the poor have done nothing but grow thanks to the great recession, yet elected officials are allergic to debates on the subject. Why? The answer is simple. Politicians can't raise money talking about poverty. Poor people don't make campaign contributions.
When and where have there been actions taken to arrest the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us? We've been growing apart economically for 30 years now, yet elected officials have continued to back policies that aggravate this condition. Why? Again the answer is simple. Abandoning trickle-down economics in more just a rhetorical way doesn't help politicians raise money. Most campaign donations come from the wealthiest in our society. Here at the Democracy Campaign, we've been managing a database of contributors to state campaigns since 1996. If you were to count up all the donors in that database, they would amount to about 1% of Wisconsin's population. Any one candidate for state office gets financial support from a small fraction of 1% of the people, and it's overwhelmingly the fraction of 1% of society that actually benefits from trickle-down policies.
I've written before about how Democrats nationally and here in Wisconsin have lost the support of rural communities and have watched helplessly as Republicans have built a rich-poor alliance. Well, when is the last time you can remember Democratic lawmakers talking about rural issues or putting forward a rural agenda? There is near-total silence on the subject. Why? Once again, the answer is simple. Politicians can't raise money talking about rural issues. Rural folks don't make many campaign contributions. When we've done zip code analyses of campaign contributions in Wisconsin, we've found that most of the money comes from just a handful of the state's 900 zip codes. All of them are urban or suburban communities.
If Democrats stay caught in the political money trap, how can they really stick up for working people in more than just an empty rhetorical way? After all, even before the Republicans' Act 10 crippled Wisconsin's public employee unions, Democrats were getting $6 from business interests for every dollar they were receiving from unions.
Because of the way it determines what actions elected officials ultimately take and what they even talk about, big money wins even when it appears to lose. And Democrats lose most of all when big money wins. When they are trapped into playing the money game, they lose their ability to act in a way that speaks powerfully to working people and the poor and especially those living in rural areas, without whom Democrats cannot hope to build a sustainable electoral majority in Wisconsin.
They could have acted to spring the money trap when they controlled the legislature and governor's office a few short years ago. They didn't. And now they're thinking these Super PACs funded by the super-rich might not be such a bad thing after all.
They also could have reformed the redistricting process. They chose not to. Now they have to live with gerrymandered districts that make it hard to see how they can gain control of the legislature any time in the next decade. Hell, even in a year when the state voted to keep a Democrat in the White House and put a Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Democrats lost the state senate and didn't make a dent in the large GOP majority in the Assembly. Democrats won more votes in these legislative contests, but Republicans won more seats thanks to the way the district lines were drawn.
In this world, there are fools. And there are damned fools. And then there are Democrats.