How big money keeps populism at bay

The Democratic Party is in deep trouble going into the 2014 elections, and it’s not solely due, or even mainly due, to gerrymandering, voter suppression or other dirty tricks by Republicans.

Thomas Ferguson

Thomas Ferguson

Their main problem is that the Obama administration is five years old, and there has been no economic recovery for the vast majority of Americans.  While Democrats can justly claim that the economic crash is due to the policies of the Bush administration, voters have a right to expect that by now, the Obama administration would have offered an alternative.

Recognizing the problem, President Obama has started talking about income inequality, and trying to re-energize the Democratic base of support — union members, working women, Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans.   The problem for the President and for Democrats generally is how to do this without jeopardizing their support from big-money donors whose contributions they need to win.

This is a tightrope that Obama has been able to walk so far.  The question is how long he can get away with it.

Political scientist Thomas Ferguson, who is known for his “investment theory” of political parties, and fellow academics Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen recently published an analysis which concluded that the 2012 elections were basically a contest between different factions of the upper 1 percent of income earners.

Nearly two-thirds of itemized contributions to the Obama campaign and more than 70 percent of itemized contributions to the Romney campaign came from donors who contributed $10,000 or more.  Roughly the same breakdowns held for the proportions of total contributions in amounts of $500 or more.  Obama received more small donations than Romney, but both got the bulk of their funds from big donors.

That’s not to say nothing was at stake.  Republican candidates tend to get the support of the oil and gas industry; Democrats the telecommunications and computer industry.  Wall Street shifts back and forth between the two parties, but exercises strong influence over both.

The 2014 congressional elections will be the same, only worse, Ferguson, Jorgensen and Chen predicted, since recent court decisions have removed the last vestiges of restrictions on campaign contributions.

Thomas Frank wrote an eloquent article recently in Harper’s magazine, indicting college-educated progressive Democrats for their passivity and their disconnect from the concerns of working people.  He wrote that they are waiting for the Republican Party to be destroyed by the Tea Party movement, just as in earlier eras they waited for the GOP to be destroyed by George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, supply-side economics, Watergate and Barry Goldwater.

The Democrats’ problem is not just the power of money.  It is that, for many Democrats, the power of money is not an issue.

LINKS

How Big Money Keeps Populism at Bay by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen for AlterNet.

Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Elections: Who’s Really Driving the Taxi to the Dark Side by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen for the Roosevelt Institute.

Golden Rule and Right Turn, earlier posts of mine reviewing Ferguson’s books and ideas.

Donkey Business by Thomas Frank in Harper’s magazine.

54% of Republicans Say We’ve Got Too Much Inequality on Washington’s Blog.  And three-quarters of Democrats say the same thing.  Why is this not reflected in U.S. politics?

The Trouble With Chris Christie by Chris Hedges for TruthDig.

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