Democracy is worthless when based on wealth

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Last Monday, David Koch of the infamous Koch Brothers suggested at a fundraiser that he believes that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker should be the Republican nominee for President.

Some in the media took this to be a tacit endorsement of Walker, while others have said that the Kochs will wait to endorse. The skeptics point to Walker’s recent gaffes, such as “punting” on a question so simple as evolution or making several clearly uninformed comments on foreign policy, as well as his shift to the far-Right on some moderate sticking points such as immigration, surely disagreeable to the Libertarian-leaning Kochs.

Whether the Koch brothers ultimately support Walker or not, the buzz around David Koch’s comment means that the real 2016 primary election has officially begun: the scramble for the money of the mega-donors. While candidates in both parties have to go state-by-state in primary elections to win their party’s nomination, their success hinges largely on their ability to win over the super rich.

In many cases, presidential primary campaigns are financed almost entirely by a handful of huge donations from the obscenely wealthy. Before candidates can depend on the weight of their party’s support and donor-base in the general election, they need to find a sugar daddy or sugar momma to get their campaign off the ground and into the primaries.

Think about it: The very first primary elections for 2016 are still about eight months away. The primary elections run much longer than the general election, and candidates in the primary have to focus on campaigning in every single state in a way that they don’t for the general. Candidates in primary elections have less name recognition and receive less “free advertising” through media coverage, so they have to spend more money getting their name out there than in the general.

All these extra demands come on top of the public’s general indifference to the primary elections. Most people don’t really pay attention to politics before the general election, let alone give money to candidates. Additionally, many small dollar donors and organizations wait to give money until their preferred party has nominated a candidate, and the largest source of money in campaigns — the political parties — obviously don’t provide funding to candidates until the party has selected a nominee.

Candidates in primary elections have to overcome immense expenses without the reliable funding stream of an official presidential nominee. The result is that candidates have no other choice but to campaign to the super wealthy. Hence, the existence of “hidden primary:” the real election to determine which candidates can run for President. The electorate is the elite, the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, who vote with dollars instead of ballots.

Why does this matter? Well, just like any other election, the voters in the hidden primary expect the candidate they elect to represent them. It’s important to remember that the super wealthy who get to vote in the hidden primary tend to be successful investors and shrewd business people. They view the money that they spend in elections like any other investment or business transaction. They expect a return on their investment, and services provided for their business transaction.

The Koch brothers, who by their own estimates expect to spend just under $1 billion in the 2016 elections at the local, state, and federal level, can easily expect to earn back several billion dollars in the form of deregulation, subsidies, and tax cuts. In a slightly different context, exchanging money for political favors is called bribery. But in the United States, it’s called “Campaign Contributions.”

Unlike a lot of progressives, I don’t believe that the Koch Brothers are any more nefarious than any other mega-donors. Okay, that’s not true — the Koch Brothers are pretty nefarious. But, on the whole, this isn’t just a problem with Republican donors and Republican candidates. Money in politics is the biggest threat to our democracy, and it has infected the operations and priorities of both political parties. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, expects to spend about $2.5 billion dollars in the 2016 election, far more than any other campaign in history.

We have to ask ourselves, with so much money in the system and so much influence from the super-wealthy, are regular people really being represented anymore? The ideal of a representative democracy like ours should be one person, one vote. We have lost sight of that ideal. There can’t be complete equality in every facet of our society, and there shouldn’t be. But when it comes to selecting our leaders, a poor single mother should have just as much influence as David Koch.