Poll after poll shows us that Americans are worried about the health of their democracy, and “worried” is only one of many words we could use here. They’re concerned, they’re dispirited and they’re alarmed at what they see playing out in this run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The 1% of the 1% seem to fuel and fund every major campaign, and due to the rapid proliferation of super PACs who need seven-figure funders, we are calling 2016 the BYOB — “bring-your-own-billionaire” — election. These super PACs raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, all while flouting laws about coordination with the formal campaign. Anonymous donors fund “secret money,” also known as “dark money,” that’s allowed to exist because of a huge loophole in IRS regulations.
Recent Supreme Court rulings as well as a lack of action by Congress, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, who all have jurisdiction over campaign finance, mean that the upcoming election will be one of limitless sources of funding for campaigns with a relatively small amount of transparency and accountability. For the average citizen, it is hard not to conclude that the game is rigged for the wealthy and the elite.
Traditionally, mainstream candidates in both parties respond to this concern with a series of platitudes that are invariably forgotten as soon as the campaign is over. So it’s interesting to see that the two candidates talking the most about money and influence in politics are the populist outliers, Bernie Sanders for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. While the pundit class assures us that neither candidate should be taken seriously, their poll numbers only grow — this points to a real hunger within the electorate to hear candidates talk frankly about the damaging effect of unaccountable money in our politics. The disconnect between the 1% and the 99% isn’t just financial, it’s political.
So we were surprised and pleased last week when both the Sanders campaign and the Clinton campaign released plans telling us how they would reform our broken system of campaign finance and address the money in politics issue. We’ll leave it to others to parse their proposals, but it’s a positive development. We hope that every presidential candidate, in both parties, will release a plan telling us how they would fix our broken political system. This topic is core to every other issue that will be discussed during the presidential campaign. How we address and debate issues like immigration, infrastructure and health care are inextricably linked to how we fund our political campaigns.
Voters deserve to know where candidates running for federal office stand on these fundamental questions:
- Should the Citizens United and McCutcheon Supreme Court rulings be overturned?
- Should so-called “social welfare” organizations — who aren’t required to disclose their donors — be able to participate in campaigns from the shadows?
- Would you support efforts to reform the campaign finance system and help bring the public further into the political process?
- Should political advertisers be required to identify the top sponsors behind all ads appearing on broadcast television, cable, the Internet and radio?
- Should super PACs supporting your candidacy turn away donations when their source can’t be traced to a specific donor?
- Do you support real-time, electronic disclosure of donations to any political campaign or organization?
Presidential campaigns are moments for a country to talk about where it stands and where it’s heading. The United States has always prided itself on being the greatest democracy on earth; for that phrase to be more than a cliche, we need our leaders to step forward and tell us how they would fix our broken system.