Big Money Out, Accountability In



You can’t escape it. From the stacks of The New York Times in the mailroom, to nearly every social media platform, we see students in the Middle East standing up and risking their lives for their freedom and democracy.

While we applaud these young people who speak up for the dream of living in a society with a transparent government, when was the last time we asked ourselves about our own government? Do we believe that our government listens to and cares about us?

For countless Americans, the answer is no. Many people see U.S. politics as corrupt and beyond resuscitation. As the ascent of the Tea Party movement has glaringly indicated, ordinary people feel angry and excluded from the political process.

Who’s to blame? Wall Street, oil companies, the health care industry and other big corpo­rate interests are not entirely evil entities, but they do exclude “the little guy” when they pour millions of dollars every year into the coffers of candidates. According to the well-respected Center for Responsive Politics, the finance, insurance and real estate industries gave over $495 million to federal candidates and parties between 2008 and 2009. The health care industry alone was responsible for $170 million in donations, while the oil and gas industry poured $34 million into the energy sector.

You might ask, what is so evil about a company spending money where it sees fit? While some people, including members of the Supreme Court, might support the right of people to spend money as they choose, the effects of unlimited campaign financing are extremely deleterious to ordinary citizens.

The more money a candidate gets from one “supporter,” the more attention they will pay to that particular group. Politicians then ignore the needs of ordinary citizens when they pay their donors back with tax breaks and special legislative favors, essentially becoming caught in a big money trap. To win an election, politicians are forced to court wealthy contributors for donations, essentially marginalizing the voice of those less well-off.

The average winner of a U.S. Senate seat in 2008 spent more than $8 million on an elec­tion campaign; of a House seat, over $1.3 million. With this kind of money being solicited and spent by both political parties, our democracy has morphed into a political system where corporate contributors call the shots and those without money to contribute are left out in the cold.

So, what can we do? We can take a page from the books of the young men and women in the Middle East and start paying attention to how our system works. Not rioting in the streets per se, but joining groups that fight to get Big Money out of politics and people back in. Check out organizations like Public Campaign, Common Cause and Democracy Matters, which believe we can change the system and elect representatives accountable to us, not to big funders. Only then will we have a real democracy: a government of, by and for the people.