Russ Feingold: A Gilded Age on Steroids
Wealthy interests have vastly greater influence over the policies made by our democratically elected government than do average working families. Martin Gilens rightly notes that the disproportionately large political donations of the wealthiest, rather than their volunteering or voting patterns, are the sources of this influence.
I have seen this enormous disparity play out over the last several decades, first as a member of the Wisconsin legislature and then as a U.S. senator. But it has never been as bad as it is right now.
The recent explosion in the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations followed the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Citizens United overturned more than a century of settled law and gave corporations free rein over the political process. Those who question the impact of the decision need only look at recent history for a telling lesson.
In the 1990s serious abuses arose when Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and their lawyers exploited a loophole in campaign finance laws by creating something called “soft money.” These were unlimited contributions intended only for “get out the vote” operations, but the Clinton-Gore folks maintained that the money could be used by political parties for “issue ads.”
Phony, soft money-funded issue ads, mostly negative, began flooding the airwaves. Worse, soft money was corrupting. It created an obviously transactional situation: the same elected officials who were crafting our nation’s policies were also soliciting massive soft money contributions from donors seeking to influence those policies.
Gilens finds that when Democrats control government, they are no more likely than Republicans to set aside the preferences of the most affluent in favor of the less well off. Democratic lawmaking in the soft money era confirms that finding.