Heading into the 2016 election, there is widespread dissatisfaction across the political spectrum with the amount of money in politics and the excessive influence wielded by powerful interests. Donald Trump has argued his candidacy presents an antidote: someone extremely wealthy can finance his own campaign, reject money from those who would seek to influence him, and once in office, change the system to reduce the influence of money.
Quite apart from the merits of Trump or any other candidate, self-funded billionaire candidates cannot be the solution to the problem of money in politics. A primary reason why money in politics concerns us so much is that our current system gives rich and powerful interests a disproportionate ability to use their money to influence which public officials are elected, what issues politicians focus on, and what policy decisions they make once in office. Allowing some of these same rich and powerful interests to increase their influence further by paying to get themselves elected surely does not address this problem. In other words, if we’re worried that the prevalence of money in politics could push the United States to look more like an oligarchy (a system of government dominated by rich and powerful business interests), directly electing one of the oligarchs is not a good way to avoid that fate. That may be among the reasons why, as Vox documented recently, wealthy self-funders actually have a pretty poor record as candidates in recent years.
It is worth remembering that CREW and the many other people and organizations working to reduce the influence of money in politics are not merely trying to reduce the number and amounts of contributions given to campaigns. If that was the only goal, a self-funder who accepted few contributions from others might look like a compelling alternative. We are, at base, trying to make sure that public officials in this country make policy decisions based on what is the right policy and what is best for the American people. A mega-rich self-funding candidate will have personal and business interests that look a lot like those of the other powerful people and companies that usually influence campaigns and office holders with huge contributions – and not so much like the interests and needs of the American people as a whole. Journalists and researchers have documented that the wealthiest Americans have policy views that are significantly different from the views of the broader public. The American people should have public officials who will understand us, be responsive to us, and make the best policy decisions for the country; there is no reason for us to have confidence that a billionaire candidate who buys his or her own way into office will be any more likely to fit that profile than a candidate who comes into office powered by the support of other billionaires.
Another common claim made by supporters of Trump, but one that could apply to some other candidates as well, is that his campaign has been propelled largely by free media – massive unpaid press coverage – meaning that he is not beholden to money at all and is perhaps ushering in a new age where money actually is not as important in politics. Again, this largely misses the point. It is similarly problematic for the solution to the problem of money in politics to be the proliferation of candidates who receive significant press attention because of prior celebrity status or because of a willingness to make provocative and outrageous statements. That solution suggests that the only way to break through the current money-based system without significant expenditures of money may be by being a pre-existing celebrity or by cutting such an outrageous public profile that the press feels compelled to provide free coverage. If that becomes true, then the chances of electing leaders who understand and listen to regular people and who seek to make policy decisions in the best interest of the public and the country, rather than based on what will drive publicity, go down still further.