‘It is time economics, political science, and history recognize the reality of industrial and financial blocs within parties and acknowledge money’s powerful effects on elections,’ write the authors of a major new study on the outsized influence of money in politics.
MINNEAPOLIS — New research by experts in political and economic theory clearly shows that wealthy corporations are increasingly dominating American democracy.
Published Aug. 1 by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, “How Money Drives US Congressional Elections” examined decades of congressional races and found that the more a candidate outspent their opponent, the more likely they were to win an election.
The authors, Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen, hope their study will help economists and political scientists break the “taboos that for so long segmented discussions of politics from economics” and shatter myths, still widespread, that perpetuate the notion that campaign spending is relatively unimportant to the outcomes of elections.
“If it turns out that the US has entered a Post-Democratic age, the situation will not be improved by social scientists behaving like ostriches,” they warn.
The study was released ahead of the five-year anniversary of the founding of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which frequently focused on the harm caused by Wall Street’s heavy investment in politics and the dangers of growing systemic inequality in America.
“The protesters who swirled into parks, churches, and town squares around the world in the fall of 2011 to challenge the primacy of the ‘1%’ hammered relentlessly on one theme above all others: that economic inequality has deep roots in the political system,” the authors write, suggesting their study vindicates many of the movement’s core beliefs.
The authors’ methodology differs from that of similar studies into the influence on corporate money in politics because it examines relative differences in spending between candidates in each of the two major parties, rather than just the total amount spent. Previously, the trio examined three congressional elections — in 1980, 1996 and 2012 — and found an extremely close link between campaign expenditures and voting outcomes.
“Our results surprised even us,” the authors note. “The relationship was strong for the Senate and almost absurdly tight for the House.”
Evidence for this “tight” relationship between campaign spending and electoral winnings only deepened in this year’s follow-up study. The trio examined every House and Senate election held between 1980 and 2014, and found that, in all but one election, a party that significantly outspent its opponents was more likely to win.
Over time, the influence of money increased as overall spending increased. The authors note a key point in the study’s model when the influence of campaign spending became especially clear:
“The famous 1994 election in which Newt Gingrich and a Golden Horde of donors stunned the world by seizing control of the House of Representatives for the Republicans for the first time since 1954 (and only the third time since 1932).”
An analysis of the sources of campaign war chests also found that powerful corporations outspent wealthy individual donors, and corporations overwhelmingly support conservative candidates and causes.
The authors note:
“It goes without saying that this news is not reassuring; particularly in elections below the federal level – in states and local elections, we suspect, money has come to dominate outcomes to a frightening degree.”
The study concludes with a dire warning for voters and social scientists alike:
“It is time economics, political science, and history recognize the reality of industrial and financial blocs within parties and acknowledge money’s powerful effects on elections.”
Ferguson, Jorgensen and Chen are far from the first researchers to raise the alarm on the influence of money in politics. A 2014 Princeton study found the U.S. more clearly resembles an oligarchy than a true democracy.
Even former President Jimmy Carter underlined this point during a radio appearance on the nationally-syndicated Thom Hartmann program last year. Citing the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision which opened the door to virtually limitless campaign contributions, he said:
“It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. senators and congress members.”