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"Race, Poverty and the "Wealth Primary","

by Jasmin B. Raskin March/April 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Everyone knows that the poll tax discriminated against African-Americans and poor people in the South. Thus, when the Supreme Court in 1966 invalidated Virginia's $1.50 poll tax, it was an important moment in the history of struggle against both plutocracy and white supremacy. Likening wealth-based voting exclusions to racial disenfranchisement, Justice William Douglas held that "a State vio-lates the Equal Protection Clause...whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard."

Similarly, the imposition by states of hefty filing fees for political candidates effected a class-based political exclusion. In striking down candidate fees in Texas ranging from $150 to $6300, even Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1972 had to recognize that "the very size of the fees" gave Texas elections "a patently exclusionary character," as many "potential office seekers lacking both personal wealth and affluent backers are in every practical sense precluded from seeking the nomination of their chosen party, and no matter how enthusiastic their popular support." The consequent shrinking of electoral choices "falls more heavily on the less affluent segment of the community, whose favorites are likely to be unable to pay the large costs. - -"

Today, the wealth-based political process is back with a vengeance. And, yet, because the new plutocracy charges the wealthy thousands of dollars to participate, rather than charging the poor a buck-fifty, people are missing the obvious. Today's "wealth primary" is every bit as exclusionary to poorer candidates and voters as the regime of the high filing fee and the poll tax. Last year, forces vying for state power spent a breathtaking $2.6 billion, and you can bet that money didn't come from the poor. U.S. Senate seats were taken by candidates who spent, on average, more than $4 million, and the average House seat went to a candidate who spent more than $650,000. Better than 90% of House seats, as usual, were retained by incumbents, who use the combination of the partisan gerrymander, franking (free postage) and PAC contributions to squeeze out competition. Incumbent or not, the big spender won in nine out often races, and a record number of millionaires (over 100) now serve in Congress. Thus, the citizen without wealth or access to it has as much chance of winning the Lotto as a seat in Congress. We have essentially re-established wealth and property qualifications for political leadership.

Most voters are bypassed in the mad search for dollars from the donor class. Less than 1% of the people give the vast majority of all money to candidates for Congress, and 95% of the people give no money at all. Certain upscale zip codes around Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood yield more in campaign contributions than do the dozen poorest states combined. The effective mechanism of political exclusion today is year-round fundraising and spending, the daily Millionaire Man march through Washington: the $1,000-a-plate black-tie dinner, slumber panics in the Lincoln Bedroom, the ceaseless mobilization of hundreds of millions of dollars from affluent citizens and corporate PACs, the rampant trade of private checks for public legislation, the infusion of hundreds of millions of corporate dollars in soft money to the Democratic and Republican Parties, the hundreds of millions of dollars in incumbent perks (paid press secretaries and speech writers, franking privileges, etc.), and then, above all, the systematic domination of governmental process and outcomes by moneyed interests. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell put it nicely in his last days when he corrected someone asking him how money was affecting our political system: "Money is the system," he said.

In cash-driven politics, there is no need to charge the poor to vote because they will never find anyone they want to vote for anyway. Like a high filing fee but much more effective, the wealth primary screens out candidates (and parties) who do not have personal wealth or political affinity with those who do. It has not taken long for the poor to figure out the system on their own and to stop voting. In 1994, when Newt Gingrich rose to power, the
working and non-working poor, who make up nearly 38% of the country, comprised only 10% of the voting electorate. Widespread voter apathy, rather than being some kind of massive personality disorder, may be a perfectly rational response to the closed system of money politics that leaves the interests of the non-wealthy in the dust. In 1992, of four million eligible African Americans age 18-24, only 638,000 showed up at the polls.

P&R readers hardly need to be told the policy consequences. Government has become the instrument of wealth maximization for the powerful and social control over the rabble below. Congress bailed out politically active S&Ls with a half trillion dollars of taxpayer money; keeps billions flowing to the Pentagon because the corporations that profit are PAC-carrying members of the electoral-industrial complex; and passes NAPTA white most Americans register their disapproval. Meanwhile, Congress has turned our meager social safety net into a tight rope, and pushed hundreds of
thousands of other people's children ~... out into mid-air to practice trapeze. Stupid kids, they should have formed a PAC.

The Strange Silence of the Progressive Community

It is worth asking why the social change and human service communities that find themselves losing in the face of America's money politics do not organize to attack the system as an exclusionary process that enlarges social inequality. I want to suggest four main reasons.

Many progressive groups are playing the money game themselves. Labor unions, for example, fill the coffers of Democratic candidates with tens of millions of dollars every election. One can hardly blame tern for flying to even the score and buy the same access their business counter-pans enjoy. But, in actively opposing reform of the system, unions not only freeze the status quo but refuse to accept the obvious: the labor movement will never be able to outbid corporate America and buy itself a Congress. In 1995-96, business PACs and business forces outspent labor unions 7-1, a ratio that has been steady over time. The massive independent expenditure campaign labor ran in 1996 has probably succeeded only in making the Republicans more anti-union. Wouldn't union dues be better spent organizing unorganized workers?

Women's and minority groups make the same mistake. Emily's List, which has done a great job collecting cash from around the country and sending it to women candidates in close races, has lost sight of the big picture in its active opposition to campaign finance reform. There are 93 male Senators and seven women. Wouldn't women candidates, who lack access to circles of mostly male corporate benefactors, do a lot better in a system of public financing in which all candidates were put on an equal footing? Emily's List is confusing the nobility of its own rescue mission for a handful of women candidates with the virtue of the entire system, which systematically disadvantages women. Meanwhile, many of the women who do get elected, like millionaire Senator Diane Feinstein, quickly get assimilated to the politics of the authoritarian corporate-welfare state.

Many African-American and Hispanic members of Congress, disproportionately dependent on PAC contributions and out-of-state money, have also opposed changing the system. Their districts are poor and, as incumbents, they want to be able to roam freely to pick up special-interest cash in order to build their warchests. The satisfaction of incumbents with America's money politics is no secret, but we should demand more from the minority caucuses.

Big-money politics is a killer for most progressive minority candidates who go head-to-head against whites. The Chicago Urban League reported in September 1996 that the high spender won in 29 out of 36 of the most recent contested aldermanic elections in that city, and the high spender was almost always white. White candidates spent on average $101,300, while Hispanics spent on average $51,100 and African-American candidates spent $37,000. According to the study, the candidate's race is "the most important determinant of how much money a candidate will be able to raise."

This pattern has been repeated nationally. In 1994, only two black candidates - Alan Wheat in Missouri and Ron Sims in Washington - even tried to run against whites for U.S. Senate, and both were overwhelmed by the white candidate's money. In his second match-up against Jesse Helms in 1996, Harvey Gantt was again outspent by Helms by a margin of 2-1 and could not survive the onslaught of tobacco, big-business and right-wing money. A federal district court in Texas in the 1970s struck down multi-member State House districts, ruling that the "cost of conducting electoral campaigns in countywide races was "so excessive that this factor alone has inhibited the recruitment and nomination or election of Mexican-American candidates for the Texas House of Representatives.

In sum, the wealth primary is a dressed-up version of the "white primary," which the Supreme Court abolished in a series of cases in the 1940s and 5Os. In Terry v. Adams (1953), the Court held that the Texas Jaybirds, a large private political club made up of white voters, was unlawfully excluding African-Americans from its pre-primary endorsement process. According to Justice Hugo Black, government cannot allow private groups to exclude disfavored citizens from "an integral part" of "the elective process that determines who shall rule and govern..." Justice Felix Frankfurter described the Jaybird primary as "the instrument of those few... who are politically active - the officials of the local Democratic Party and, we may assume, the elected officials." These officials pretended to be loyal to the voting process but in fact participated in "a wholly successful effort to withdraw significance from" the original election process.

To be sure, the existence today of numerous majority-black and Hispanic districts, brought into being by the Voting Rights Act amendments of 1982, has mitigated the racial effects of the wealth primary by, in essence, creating a separate playing field for minority congressional candidates. But the antidemocratic effects of money power are no less offensive in majority-minority districts where incumbents can spend their opponents into oblivion. At any rate, the Supreme Court's ongoing demolition of such districts is thrusting minorities into districts where white rivals begin with much greater personal wealth and much stronger fundraising capacity. True, incumbents like Cynthia McKinney will be able to win in some of these districts, but as McKinney honestly points out [see her "I Am a Product of the Voting Rights Act!" in the last issue of P&R], it was her original "majority-black district" that "gave voters the opportunity to elect someone like me who had only $38,000 to spend against a well-funded establishment candidate in the Democratic primary four years ago. Representing that majority-minority district for 3 1/2 years enabled me to develop a track record.. .and the local and national contacts necessary to raise the nearly $1 million I spent to win in the new district." When majority-black districts are reduced in number, where will the Cynthia McKinneys of the future find the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to compete?

It is time for a new strategy for minority empowerment that advocates equal access to the right to run for office. Perhaps it is time to recreate Freedom Democratic Parties to bring the poor back into politics.

Of course, insider elites in labor, women and minority communities can play big-money politics to their personal advantage. Think of union presidents, Barbara Streisand and Pamela Harriman, Willie Brown in Sacramento or Ron Brown and John Huang at the DNC and the Commerce Department. But the overall effect of this strategy is profoundly damaging to their constituencies. Money politics creates a crisis of moral leadership.

Last summer, for example, shortly after President Clinton signed the welfare bill, the Democrats gathered in convention in Chicago to celebrate Dick Morris' triangulation strategy. Not a single union leader, feminist or minority official present pointed out the shocking juxtaposition of Democrats joining Republicans to further impoverish a million kids and then spending a long weekend munching jumbo shrimp and Swedish meatballs-on-a-toothpick with armies of corporate lobbyists and millionaire benefactors in sky suites.

· Many progressives secretly doubt whether money power actually makes any difference in politics and assume that Republican control of Congress faithfully reflects the will of the people.

Many progressives don't realize how critical money is to the current conservative cast of our politics, including the Republican capture of Congress in 1994. With Newt Gingrich jawboning the corporate class for money, campaign expenditures by Republican challengers rose an amazing 66% over 1992, providing enough money for 34 of them to knock off Democratic incumbents. These 34 spent an average of $625,000 apiece. As political scientist Thomas Ferguson wrote, "A sea of money that had long been flowing reliably to Congressional Democrats and the party that controlled the White House abruptly reversed direction and began gushing in torrents to Republican challengers."

Moreover, public opinion does not develop in a vacuum but rather ends up reflecting the same power consensus that corporate America buys on Capitol Hill. Every year, candidates give hundreds of millions of dollars to corporate broadcasters to buy 30-second campaign ads to saturate the public. These ads, relentlessly negative in tone, usually try to align the candidate with the voting public's carefully cultivated fear of aliens, criminals, poor people and minorities. But the cash-driven manipulation of public consciousness does not end with the election. The multi-million dollar publicity campaign that killed a national health plan shows us how public opinion can be shaped by the same money that sways politicians. In short, "public opinion," far from driving public policy, is more often the product of the same corporate money power that defines "realism" in elite circles.

· Liberals have characterized cam-paign finance reform as an issue of "ethics" rather than a democratic imperative. The leading campaign reform group, Common Cause, places campaign reform in the context of a host of issues relating to the personal ethics of elected officials - a real prob-lem but one that pales next to the far more important issue of who will, in effect, control government. The issue is not just one of clean hands versus dirty hands, but whether we will have government by the affluent or by all the people.

· Finally, even when progressives have organized to challenge political money power - such as ACORN's very popular initiatives to cap campaign contributions at $100 in states and cities - they have run smack into the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. That case brought private political money under the protettion of the First Amendment, essentially constitutionalizing a free market in campaign contributions. Many people simply have given up on changing the system.

Buckley has become the Plessy v. Ferguson of politics, fostering a polity segregated by money. Under the majesty of the Supreme Court's elitist gloss on the First Amendment, the rich and poor now experience separate political realities but are deemed equals before the law. Every citizen has the right to be rich and contribute tens of thousands of dollars a year to campaigns or to spend to the heavens to finance his own candidacy. Every citizen also has the right not to be rich and to give nothing to campaigns, to watch the scandal-packed wealth primary on TV and to cast a vote for candidates preselected by PACs and money elites. Buckley's "separate but equal" electoral regime empowers the wealthy to be the nation's citizen-owners but leaves everyone else as passive consumers of ads from the cash-soaked political consultant industry.

Signs of Change?

Despite all of the legal and political reasons for the suppression of campaign finance as a class and race issue, there are signs that change is coming. Public outrage is at an all-time high, and the natural alternative for people who want more democracy in America is finally emerging: public financing of elections. The smashing success of Maine's 1996 public-financing initiative has given impetus to a push at the national level. A new group called Public Campaign, headed by Ellen Miller, formerly of the Center for Responsive Politics, is waging a national campaign to press for a Clean Money Option, a system of publicly-financed congressional campaigns to run parallel to private campaigns. Federal candidates who collect a certain number of $5 qualifying contributions and agree to raise no other money would receive media vouchers and public funding for their campaigns. Broadcast licenses would be conditioned on corporations surrendering time for political speech in the weeks before an election. Attempts by privately-financed candidates to spend public candidates into oblivion would trigger release of matching funds to the public candidates in escalator fashion.

Because it is voluntary, the new regime would be perfectly constitutional, even under the pinched understandings of Buckley, and the system would end up looking like the electoral equivalent of our education system, where we have public and pri-vate schools operating side-by-side. It obviously wouldn't be ideal, and corporate-money would still shout, but today it's as if all we have are private schools.

Of course, the effort to develop a public system runs counter to the pervasive traducing by corporate America of all things public, as well as national cynicism about politicians as a group. But some encouraging polls suggest that a majority of Americans would back public financing of campaigns if it would reduce the grip of special interests on government. It would then be up to progressives to summon up the political creativity to thrust new kinds of activists and leaders into elective politics.

It's time to reduce corporate control over our political parties and candidates, liberate elected officials from the tyranny of money power and create the possibility for working-class people to run for office and win. It would be an important first step in trying to take back our politics for the people.

Jasmin B. Raskin Jamin B. Raskin, Professor of Law at the Washington College of Law at American University (4400 Massachu-sells Ave. NW, Wash., DC20016, 202/274-4010), is an active public interest lawyer and formerly General Counsel of the National Rainbow Coalition.


"It has become a quasi-corporate process. . . . The big contributors [become] the major shareholders. The rest of the population is left just to vote, to affirm the management." - Senator Dianne Feinstein's political consultant, Joe Scott, as quoted in the Wail Street Journal.

"Enclosed please find my check in the amount of $50,000." - The acceptance card to an invitation from Michael and Arianna Huffington to a fund-raising dinner for National Empowerment Television with Newt Gingrich.


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