We Need Small Donors to Halt the March to Plutocracy

Presidential candidates can’t just attend intimate gatherings with America’s richest to raise money. Bernie Sanders showed that another way is possible

‘Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary campaign shocked the political establishment.’ (Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Aides to Donald Trump suggested this week that the presidential candidate might self-fund an end-of-campaign advertising blitz to counter Hillary Clinton’s rise in the polls. His contributions should give us serious pause. Is this how we want our republic to function? Do we want to live in a country where candidates can rise or fall based on their pocketbooks or the financial backing of their rich friends?

Wealthy donors like Trump have donated the vast majority of campaign funds for both political parties in 2016. That should scare a lot of Americans. But there’s one bright spot in the 2016 cycle that offers a path forward.

Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary campaign shocked the political establishment and demonstrated the immense power of movement politics, raising $232m from more than 8 million individual contributions. Nearly 3 million Americans coming together to support a progressive vision, donating $27 at a time, showed that a serious campaign could run on grassroots dollars alone.

For those concerned about the undue influence of the ultra-wealthy in US. politics, Bernie’s success offers a glimmer of hope that we might be able to halt the country’s march toward plutocracy.

Our campaign finance system encourages rich donors to pour billions of dollars into American elections. This cash flow threatens to disempower the electorate and corrupt our republic.

When politicians like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney run traditional campaigns, they replace public-facing campaign stops with private affairs for large-scale donors. There’s a loss here for both the candidates and voters. Candidates lose valuable perspective gained only from listening to the diversity of voices that represent the vast majority of Americans who are not in the upper echelons of the economy. Voters lose the opportunity to hear from politicians about their campaign platform and vision.



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Politicians are influenced by the company they keep. When constantly attending intimate gatherings with the United States’ richest, they often adopt their perspectives and agendas. Candidates don’t get to hear from those who can’t afford to be in the room. They develop policies to protect the interests of their friends.

After the election, the richest donors are the ones who receive the meetings and telephone calls. It’s a form of simple payback. It means that our politicians are too often insulated from the opinions of the bottom 99% who can’t afford to buy that time.

What about running for office in the first place? Increasingly, that’s a privilege only afforded to the wealthy as well. House of Representatives candidates must raise an average of more than $2,000 each and every day to run a winning campaign. The vast majority of Americans don’t have access to that kind of capital which means they’re often de facto excluded from our ruling bodies.

Our rigged system leads us to plutocracy: a system of government controlled directly by the wealthy few that serves the interests of the wealthy few. In 2014, Princeton researchers concluded that the US has already lost its democratic roots and transitioned slowly into a form of oligarchy that caters to the preferences of elites.

We need a political revolution in this country to fix what is broken, and I’m grateful to Bernie for showing us the way forward. He raised a quarter of a billion dollars in a primary campaign with 94% of it coming in online. Now we should follow his example.

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Kenneth Pennington

Kenneth Pennington

Kenneth Pennington was Bernie Sanders' digital director during his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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