The Real Impact of Big Money in 2012

One of the narratives that came out of the 2012 campaign was that “the people” (read: Obama backers) narrowly escaped an election hijacked by a narrow band of one-percenters funding Mitt Romney and associated SuperPACS. The reality is somewhat more complicated, as my UMB colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen and Paul Jorgenson of the University of Texas show in Revealed: Why the Pundits Are Wrong About Big Money and the 2012 Elections. As the authors argue it isn’t that some loose alliance of “the people” beat back big money, but that

Our conclusion is that there is nothing paradoxical about the Republican loss. One campaign funded largely by the super-rich lost to another just about as affluently funded.

If you are earning up to $400,000 per year, as the fiscal cliff “negotiations” showed us, congratulations – you are in the American “middle” class. But if you are somewhere in the lower regions of our middle class, heed this warning from professors Ferguson, Chen, and Jorgenson; there may be some surprises in store:

[W]e remind readers that the dynamics of campaigns funded mostly by major investors are quite different than the campaigns imagined by traditional democratic theory: “Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors. The basis of the “Golden Rule” in politics derives from the simple fact that running for major office in the U.S. is fabulously expensive. In the absence of large scale social movements, only political positions that can be financed can be presented to voters. On issues on which all major investors agree (think of the now famous 1 percent), no party competition at all takes place, even if everyone knows that heavy majorities of voters want something else.” (Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, AlterNet).

So when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who is now in charge of the talks on the fiscal cliff for the White House, tells reporters that the administration would like to include Social Security in the negotiations, pay attention.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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