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Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman

Blackstone CEO and multi-billionaire Stephen Schwarzman speaks at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum on September 20, 2017 in New York City. Heads of state and international business leaders met to discuss global issues and challenges to economic growth. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

You, Poor Voter, Must Stand Back and Watch as Billionaire Plutocrats Purchase Democracy

Regular people cannot, but the billionaire class can spend as much as their hearts desire to influence election outcomes.

Sam Pizzigati


Do you have a favorite candidate in the upcoming congressional midterm elections? Want to do everything you can to see that candidate elected? Thinking about opening your wallet in the campaign’s final days?

If you do feel so inclined, you’ll find out — as soon as you move to make an online contribution — that you can only open your wallet so wide. Federal election law sets strict limits on how much you can contribute, as an individual, to your candidate of choice. That limit now stands at $2,900 per election.

Contribute more than that and you’ll be breaking the law. And you could face some hefty penalties, nearly $22,000 or even more depending on the specifics of your oversized contribution.

Wait. How can ordinary Americans face substantial penalties for contributing too much to their favorite candidates when we regularly see headlines about the multiple millions America’s wealthiest are legally investing in our elections?

USA Today, for instance, reported earlier this month that U.S. billionaires have so far this election cycle dropped “nearly $675 million” into campaign coffers, “with almost all of that coming from the top 50 mega-rich givers.” Earlier this week, the Washington Post put the total 2022 federal-level campaign cash from the nation’s 50 biggest donors at $1.1 billion.

Campaign dollars from billionaire pockets, data from the researchers at Open Secrets show, make up over 10 percent of all the dollars spent so far in 2022. Some perspective on that 10 percent-plus share: In the United States today, we have three billionaires for every million adults.

Billionaires haven’t paid any federal fines for all these contributions. They can spend as much as they would like to influence election outcomes, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United decision, so long as they conduct their political business “independently” of individual candidate campaigns.

How does all this work out in practice? Consider the U.S. Senate campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker in Georgia. The biggest donor to Walker’s campaign, journalist Judd Legum points out, has been the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC run by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell’s Super PAC, in turn, gets its dollars from America’s super rich and the corporations they run, including $10 million each from private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and hedge fund CEO Kenneth Griffin. But we still don’t know the Herschel Walker campaign’s full billionaire story. The largest single donor to McConnell’s Super PAC — a “nonprofit” known as One Nation — can legally keep its donors secret. Those donors have so far handed McConnell $33.5 million.

No billionaire has done more to exploit the political manipulation of rich people-friendly not-for-profits than Charles Koch, a deep pocket who, notes the Center for Media and Democracy, “controls a multibillion-dollar fleet of nonprofits that he and other wealthy business people have built into a massive influence machine over the past 20 years.”

In the 2020 election cycle, the 28 organizations in this politically minded Koch network spent a combined $1.1 billion. The billionaire has shuffled his groups around for the 2022 cycle.

“Frequent shifts in structure often correspond with election cycles,” observes Center for Media and Democracy analyst Connor Gibson. “The changes help keep Koch’s dark money organizational structure opaque.”

The billionaire Wisconsin couple Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein share the Koch fondness for expressing themselves politically through multiple organizations. Their large donations this political cycle have so far totaled $70.2 million, not counting, the Washingon Post notes, any “direct independent expenditures” the Uihleins may have made.

Re-electing Wisconsin U.S. senator Ron Johnson has been, in the current election cycle, job one for the Uihleins. They’ve shoveled $5.8 million to his campaign through various channels. The Uihleins, all the while, have been rigorously observing the Federal Election Commission’s strict and meaningless limits on “individual giving.” They’ve each donated just $2,900 individually directly to the Johnson campaign.

The overall Uihlein investment in Johnson’s campaigning for office has, over the years, certainly had its rewards. In 2018 alone, ProPublica reports, “a federal tax break for pass-through companies pushed by Sen. Johnson and made part of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation saved Uline $43.5 million in federal taxes.”

Plenty of other deep pockets can point to similar payoffs from their political activism. America’s rich and the corporations they run, writes political commentator and former adman Thom Hartmann, poured $7 billion in the 2016 elections and, just a year later, collected from the GOP congressional majority they helped elect “almost $2 trillion in tax breaks and another trillion in forgivable loans with few strings attached.”

For the wealthiest among us, plutocracy does most certainly pay.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati, veteran labor journalist and Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits His recent books include: The Case for a Maximum Wage (2018) and The Rich Don't Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (2012).

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