2016 and the fight against the money power

Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has spent his career tracing the influence of money on U.S. national politics.   In this interview from last week, he said the big story of the 2016 election is that it is politically possible to defeat big money.

Bernie Sanders raised 60 percent of his funds from small donors, who gave $200 each or less, Ferguson said.  This is unprecedented.  He said Sanders could well have won the Democratic nomination and the general election if he had started earlier and done things differently.

But even in defeat, he said, Sanders showed it is possible to fund a national political campaign without going to the wealthy and corporate donors that the leaders of both political parties depend upon.

Ferguson is noted for his “investment theory of political parties”—that wealthy interests invest in political parties and candidates, and that the only political issues that elections decide are issues on which the big donors disagree or that they don’t care about.

He says there are basically two elections.  There is the informal money election, conducted by big donors, which winnows the field   Then there is the actual vote, which chooses among the candidates pre-selected by the money election.

What Sanders—and also Trump, to an extent—showed is that large numbers of small political “investors” can offset the few big donors.   Sanders was the equivalent of an entrepreneur who funded a start-up with a GoFundMe fundraiser.

Trump himself raised 40 percent of his campaign funds from small donors, which is unprecedented for a Republican, Ferguson said.   But most of that was before he won the Republican nomination.

Starting in August, big money started to roll in—especially from Rustbelt manufacturing interests, who liked Trump’s promise to raise tariffs against foreign imports, and also from such far-right figures as Sheldon Adelson, Peter Thiel and Robert and Rebekah Mercer.

Hillary Clinton received most of the donations that came from Wall Street and the defense and aerospace industries.

Ferguson said many candidates, including Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, ask big donors to break up their donations into small amounts, each given under slightly different variations of their names, in order to make it appear they are supported by small donors.

He said he has checked the Sanders donations closely enough to make sure this is not the case with him.

The other things that affected the outcome of the 2016 election, Ferguson said, were voter suppression in states such as North Carolina, and the sharp decline in union membership in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, since Democrats historically have depended on labor unions to get out their vote.

He did not think that the election was affected significantly by the Russians, the FBI or Wikileaks.   That conclusion is based mainly on analysis of polling data.

Also, in every state in which there was a contested Senate election, the same party won both the Senate and the Presidential race.  He said it is absurd to think that Vladimir Putin, James Comey and Julian Assange all wanted Mitch McConnell rather than Chuck Schumer to be the Senate majority leader.

The other big story of the 2016 election, which was foreshadowed in 2014, was the decline in support for the Democratic Party. Ferguson said.   That’s because all segments of the American population, except the wealthy few, lost ground during the two Obama administrations, and fewer and fewer Democrats saw any reason to vote for either party.

Americans want candidates who will do something about their economic plight—economic insecurity, low wage jobs, mortgage foreclosures and student debt.   Ferguson said Democratic leaders such as Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi discourage such candidates because they fear alienating their donor base.

Democrats may well carry one or both houses of Congress regardless of what they do because the Trump administration’s record is so terrible, he said.   The question then becomes whether they do anything meaningful with their victory.

“These people are vulnerable, and they know it very well,” he said.  “The storm is coming.  Business as usual is over.”


Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jei Chen for the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Fifty Shades of Green: High Finance, Political Money and the U.S. Congress by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jei Chen for the Roosevelt Institute.

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