For the 2020 election cycle, several presidential candidates have visited our beautiful state of Connecticut. Those candidates, however, were not here to listen to the vast majority of us, not here to understand our needs, and not here to learn how we wish to be represented by our president. They were merely here to stop by the wealthiest enclaves of Greenwich for a huge money grab – hundreds of thousands of dollars, all at once, in one afternoon.
On a debate stage, those candidates may call the high-dollar fundraising system in which they participate corrupting. Yet, if asked, to a man or to a woman they will claim that they are uniquely above its influence. As is evident, they are not above being influenced and corrupted. They are influenced by the money and influenced by the limited subset of wealthy and privileged people who are able to attend those fundraisers. The limited perspectives of a wealthy few are what those candidates have in mind when they answer policy questions while campaigning and become the limited subset of interests they serve once in elected office. Politicians behave in this way not necessarily out of malicious intent but because they know that tomorrow they will again have to raise those funds. Since those candidates rely on high-dollar and big money sources of funding, they know that they cannot govern, legislate, or advocate too far outside the narrow subset of interests which funds their campaigns because doing so will only make their fundraising job that much more difficult the next day. The result of this system of legalized influence-peddling is widely known and acknowledged. For instance, you are likely one of the 93% of people who say that elected officials listen more to wealthy donors than regular voters or you likely already recognize that a politician’s most honest day in public life is the day he or she decides to no longer seek office.
If you still think it is innocuous to host or attend these fundraisers or acceptable to support candidates who attend and you do not think our campaign finance system is a legalized form of influence-peddling, then you do not have to take my word for it regarding the powerful influence this system has on those politicians who participate. We can learn directly from those who participate and are influenced by this fundraising scheme at the highest level.
In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, then Senator Barack Obama outlined the corrupting effect the traditional high-dollar fundraising process has on politicians.
I can’t assume that the money chase didn’t alter me in some ways.
Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means – law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.
And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways – I had gone to the same schools, after all, had read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways – I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations.
I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population – that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve. And in one fashion or another, I suspect this is true for every senator: The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it, with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But your schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.
And perhaps as the next race approaches, a voice within tells you that you don’t want to have to go through all the misery of raising all that money in small increments all over again. You realize that you no longer have the cachet you did as the upstart, the fresh face; you haven’t changed Washington, and you’ve made a lot of people unhappy with difficult votes. The path of least resistance – of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops – starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.
Here’s another account provided on the subject of money in politics by another candidate in 2008:
Lobbyists aren’t bad people, special interests groups are not bad people, but guess what, they’re corrosive. People who accept money from them are not bad people, but it’s human nature. If you go out and bundle $250,000 for me, all legal, and then you call me after I’m elected and say ‘Joe, I’d like to talk to you about something.’ I’m gonna say ‘Sure, come on in.’ It’s human nature…It means that the front of the line is always filled by people whose pockets are filled.
As the candidates themselves described, even though the opinions of wealthy individuals are no more valid than the opinion of a person in any other socioeconomic class, the monetary resources of the wealthy few buys them a spot at the front of the line. Money distributed to politicians buys a far better amplification system with which to express opinions to actually be heard and represented by our politicians.
If money equals speech, then our speech is no longer free.
It should come as no surprise then, that when I read news reports about those candidates visiting the tiny wealthiest corner of our state or log on to social media and see a stream of “John & Jane Doe are in Greenwich, Connecticut” listed above pictures of friends standing next to candidates for president, it is an infuriating experience. Perhaps unknowingly, those who participate in this campaign fundraising system belie the concept of democracy itself. Their unquestioning participation in $500 to $2,800 minimum entry fee fundraisers either unintentionally undermines the very causes and people which they claim to champion or their selfish control over our representatives is the point.
Having been in these rooms myself as a campaign staffer enjoying catered spreads inside the most beautiful homes in Connecticut and having the undivided personal attention of a U.S. senator or governor, I fully understand how easy it is to feel like, “Hey, I’ve made it,” I am somebody important for just being here. That feeling goes equally in both directions, affecting candidates for office just as intensely. Yet, this corrupt system of rewarding additional political influence by virtue of wealth and privilege of circumstance denies equal opportunity for audience with our representatives to those who most ache for attention and assistance from the occupant of the White House.
The primary reason why this scheme of influence is so infuriating is because we live in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, yet we stand alone by choice as the only country in the world where some of our friends and neighbors have no practical option other than to commit suicide in order to relieve themselves and their families from the burden of medical debt. It is infuriating and detrimental because we need radical changes in many areas. And, even though there is substantial agreement on public policy across the board, including, for instance, overwhelming support for the Medicare for All proposal, we also know that as a direct result of money corrupting our politics that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
So, as more big money funded candidates visit our state’s wealthiest enclaves for high-dollar fundraisers, participation in those events will lead to a continued mass dismissal of the concerns and needs of the vast majority of us in Connecticut and nationwide.
High-dollar fundraisers held in our state serve as the foundation of a corrupting system of campaign finance. I urge those who excuse participation to break the cycle, as those fundraisers effectuate a destructive imbalance of power, influence, and representation. The unquestioning nature of involvement in this pernicious system is revolting and in dire need of revolution.
Nick Gauthier is a grassroots political, community, and union organizer and activist, and candidate for Representative Town Meeting in Waterford.