2016’s Lesson for the Left

When the Supreme Court ruled in a 2010 case known as Citizens United that corporations and individuals could donate unlimited sums of money to political actions committees, the Left wailed that democracy had suffered a fatal blow at the hands of big money.  “If you are a regular person who’s ever made a campaign donation before, forget about ever having to do that again,” said Rachel Maddowon her prime-time MSNBC program. “What’s the point of individual people trying to influence politics with donations if Exxon or some other company can quite literally match and therefore cancel out the combined donations of every single individual donor in the nation whenever it wants in one check?”

So, when Jeb Bush raised $100 million from banks, oil companies, and other corporate fat-cats for his presidential bid—a sum that more than tripled his closest rival’s— those who bought the Left’s narrative deemed the former Florida Governor the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Similarly, when it became clear that Hillary Clinton would carry unprecedented support from the Democratic establishment, the Left presumed her to be the next president.

Regardless that the poll numbers of outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were skyrocketing, sooner or later, Beltway insiders claimed, the establishment’s money and resources would overwhelm the insurgents.

As it turned out, these predictions were half wrong, and the reasoning behind them was all wrong.

Bush’s $100 million war chest proved inept at combating Donald Trump’s declamation of him as a “low energy person,” leading the former frontrunner to exit the race after the South Carolina primary. On the other hand, Trump, while telling individuals and big donors not to contribute to his campaign, defied decades of Republican establishment infrastructure, and overcame over $43 million in negative advertising to become the party’s nominee. The GOP establishment despises Trump so much that conservative mega-donor Charles Koch threatened to back Clinton in a general election.

A similar narrative plays out on the Democratic side. After voters answered Clinton with a collective “ehhh,” many turned to Sanders—who also refused to create a Super Pac—fueling his rise from fringe socialist to winner of the New Hampshire primary with 3 million individual donations averaging $27 apiece. Through individual contributions, Sanders has raised just as much if not more money than Clinton. He will fall short of the nomination because his message doesn’t appeal beyond young, educated whites, not because his voice was drowned out by Clinton’s big money operation.

It has been rightly concluded that Trump’s and Sanders’ success shows the electorate is more fed up than ever with politics as usual. But, the larger takeaway from their candidacies has been dutifully ignored, perhaps because it fails in the face of the left’s longstanding assumptions about American politics; that big money is, ultimately, a bystander to voters’ decisions.

Hence, money influences elections only to the degree that it speeds up and/or enhances the dissemination of a candidate’s message. Indeed, this can make a huge difference in a race where media coverage is not a given, or a race in which candidates are distinguished by policy details as opposed to values and vision.  Yet, if voters don’t agree with the message that the money is peddling, or, as in this case, don’t trust the money itself, voters hold the power to shape the race.

The realization of money’s true effect on politics strikes down the central argument against the Citizens United decision. Upholding the first amendment did not corrupt popular democracy—but it did, well, uphold the first amendment. Rachel Maddow and the Left should recognize the danger of substituting their judgement on the Founder’s principles for the wisdom of the principles themselves.

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