The rise of billionaires running for office is dampening the democratic impulse; that is, they threaten to take “by the people” out of government. The threat from those who swirl big money around in campaigns drives others to the sidelines of democracy, unwilling to waste their time in a contest where they fear being overwhelmed by billionaire money.
Some context, followed by a few observations:
The four resources critical to all political campaigns are money, people, skill and time.
Money has always been necessary to communicate candidate credibility, issue positions and stimulate voters to the polls.
People extend the candidate by spreading his or her message and providing the campaign management skill.
Time is undervalued as a resource, as late-starting Michael Bloomberg is finding on the presidential campaign trail.
Until recent decades, political party organizations at the local, state and national levels have been indispensable in helping party-endorsed candidates campaign at both primary and general elections. Party foot-soldiers helped spread the word, and party treasuries provided some or all of the money needed.
The parties also offered little guys like haberdasher Harry Truman and Chicago’s legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley to climb the rungs of politics without personal wealth.
Parties also provided voters, most of whom don’t follow campaigns closely, with important cues as to how they might vote with confidence, to wit: Democrats were traditionally seen as the party of the working man, Republicans the party of business.
Unfortunately, effective political party organizations are mostly a relic of the past. Court prohibitions on patronage workers and the rise of television advertising have together supplanted party precinct canvassers.
More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, while contributions to parties may be limited, expenditures in behalf of candidates by non-party groups cannot.
This has encouraged an increasing number of relatively young billionaires to try their hands at running for election. Once gaining office, they can use their wealth to influence policy-making.
This does not mean that the billionaire politicians are other than well-intentioned.
For example, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears to be a good fellow who wants to boost his state.
Yet the consequences of his money in politics threaten, as I have said, to take “government by the people” out of the equation in public life. I have written, for example, about the rather obscure but important election this year in which Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride seeks retention to a third 10-year term on the state high court.
This seat may well become the swing seat on a court that since 1964 has continuously had a 4-3 (or 5-2) Democratic majority. Insiders know that Gov. Pritzker and House Speaker Mike Madigan, Kilbride’s original patron, will spend whatever is necessary to retain this seat. As a result, Republican funders have decided, it appears, not to contest the election, as if such would simply be sending good money after bad.
I enjoy reading of the history of ancient Rome. More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman Republic seemed to embrace virtue in politics, at least initially, similar to that of our Founding Fathers. Then, over time, virtue was replaced by ambition, and money became de rigueur for political advancement. At the end of the Republic, money purchased the votes of citizens, rigged elections, even funded political armies to control outcomes.
What can be done about this anti-democratic trend in politics? Maybe nothing; sometimes trends are irreversible. I don’t see, for example, political party decline ever being reversed.
But maybe in the future, a different U.S. Supreme Court majority might realize that government by the people has been rendered largely inoperable. Such a court could overturn decisions that stimulated the billionaires into running for office and shaping our politics.
And the internet shows promise at generating thousands of small donations, which might combat billionaire money.
Finally, a billionaire’s money might itself become the primary issue in his campaign, as in the case with Mayor Mike Bloomberg in his presidential bid.
Whatever, as a society we must examine the consequences of really big money in politics.
For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.