Can money be separated from politics? With billions of dollars being raised and spent on federal elections in the United States, it seems that the answer is a resounding no. The presence of money in politics is universally recognized and problematized by political figures on both sides of the aisle, despite the necessity of funding in ensuring that the messages of different candidates reach voters. As a result of this tension, there is ongoing disagreement about the extent to which money should infiltrate the political sphere. Should the system be revered, reformed, or accepted as inevitable?
The Age of Citizens United
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is a landmark US Supreme Court case that upheld unlimited election spending by corporations, dismissing an egalitarian vision of democracy in favor of a libertarian conception of an unregulated marketplace of ideas. Campaign finance is now considered a form of political speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Following Citizens United, outside spending groups such as super political action committees (PACs) and questionable political nonprofits have funneled unprecedented amounts of money into political advertisements and donations.
While Citizens United did not affect contribution limits, a subsequent case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014), did. It ruled that the government could not prevent citizens from giving campaign contributions to as many different candidates and political parties as they wanted. Research shows that perhaps the largest impact of these landmark cases is who funds elections, with wealthy individuals, known as “mega-donors,” contributing millions of dollars to federal candidates and parties. With each seven-figure check these mega-donors write, they establish closer ties with the politicians they endorse and overwhelm the efforts of thousands, if not millions, of small donors.
This form of access is not considered unconstitutional, as it is not an explicit quid pro quo. But many, including Federal Election Commission member Ellen Weintraub, have called this influence into question. “One billionaire has so much more influence than thousands of voters combined. And that's not the way the system should work,” Weintraub argues. Only 0.5 percent of Americans made a campaign contribution of US$200 or more in the 2018 midterm election. The biggest political players in federal elections have become almost synonymous with the wealthiest individual donors, including figures like Michael Bloomberg and Sheldon Adelson. Unregulated flows of money into politics reinforce the idea that the government is beholden to the wealthy and that democratic participation for those who fall outside the upper echelons of society is of little value.
However, others argue that fewer regulations on campaign finance are beneficial to voters. Conservative campaign finance lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission Bradley Smith contends that more money in politics “has been shown to increase voter knowledge of candidates and issues.” But, even if it is true that more money can spur political speech, what actors like Smith fail to defend is the possibility for corruption that stems from allowing political entities to not disclose their funding sources. These secretive, dark money groups have spent billions of dollars in the past decade, with voters not knowing the source of the information they are receiving. The largest of such groups include center-right organizations like the National Rifle Association, Americans for Prosperity, and the US Chamber of Commerce. While these groups usually have very specific interest areas, they often take vague or unassuming names, thereby undermining the flow of accurate information and the democratic process.
Corporate spending additionally entrenches harms with lasting impacts, proving that the interests of money often fail to coincide with those of the public. When it comes to drug pricing, for example, Americans have spent US$535 billion on prescription drugs in 2018, which marks an increase of 50 percent since 2010. Even though pharmaceutical companies receive substantial assistance from the government that lowers the cost of production, they continue to charge exorbitant prices for medications. As a result of such policies, one in four Americans with diabetes have engaged in insulin rationing—the dangerous and potentially fatal practice of using less insulin than is needed to make the doses last longer. Politicians are in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, passing legislation that undermines the ability to prevent the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
In the age of Citizens United, companies have become big players in government, tacitly using the state to enhance their own legitimacy while undermining that of the state itself. When state actors become exceedingly concerned with profit, there is a direct trade-off with concern for the public good. These consequences are not limited to the United States. There is a growing trend of companies taking control of the government and accordingly taking control out of the hands of the people those governments are intended to serve.
The reach of Citizens United crosses borders. Robert Mercer, a prominent conservative donor who gave millions of dollars to Citizens United between 2012 and 2014, partnered with British firm Strategic Communications Limited Group (SCL) in 2013. SCL is the parent company of the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which has been accused of manipulating the personal data of Indian citizens to affect the outcome of elections.
By claiming to be “the most sophisticated political research and data hub in the country,” SCL was allegedly able to facilitate a landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections. SCL documents include descriptions of its proposed “operations centre,” which housed a large team of consultants that provided guidance and information to party workers. The services it offered to Indian parties for the 2014 polls include, but are not limited to, research about how caste affiliation influences voting, target audience analysis, and legal support. While it is unclear whether any of India’s political parties worked with either Cambridge Analytica or SCL, both the BJP and the opposing Indian National Congress party have leveled accusations at one another.
Cambridge Analytica’s meddling did not stop there. Brittany Kaiser, former head of business development, revealed that the firm conducted work for the Leave.EU campaign and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) prior to the 2016 referendum on European Union membership. While Leave.EU and UKIP have denied such claims, Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, has publicly stated that his group hired the firm. Banks has since backtracked on that confession, but internal emails provided by Kaiser bring to light discussions about early-stage voter analysis. Kaiser has additionally testified that Cambridge Analytica had sent an invoice of 41,500 pounds to UKIP so that the firm could analyze its internal data. Nigel Farage, former Leave.EU and UKIP leader, is a close friend of Trump, Mercer, and Bannon, which establishes clear linkages between the Trump administration, the British right, and the European right. That is to say, wealthy individuals do not act alone, especially when it comes to exporting their beliefs and platforms on a massive scale.
One such connection includes that between Cambridge Analytica and Steve Bannon, which laid the groundwork for manipulating particular segments of the American voter population and fueling the alt-right prior to the 2016 elections. The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to lead its digital advertising platform in June 2016, and it was considered integral to his success. Furthermore, in 2018, Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s former director of research, released a cache of documents revealing the company’s unauthorized possession of the private data of upwards of 50 million Facebook users so that it could create psychological profiles of voters. Wylie argued that this collection and exploitation of data for the purpose of targeted advertisements was part and parcel of “an insurgency in the United States.” His testimonies suggest that the firm wanted to promote conspiratorial and racist ideation to exacerbate those views among white voters and suppress turnout among black voters.
Cambridge Analytica is a shadowy global network of big data, billionaire investments, and transnational power grabs. The events in India, Britain, and America are wholly intertwined and speak to a broader phenomenon of companies being used as tools of political subversion. The firm’s unlawful use of private data in particular resembles an authoritarian surveillance state, even more so than simple voter analysis. Cambridge Analytica’s documented relationship with the defense establishment and military clientele proves that their work was never meant to be a benign operation—it was about using military strategies like infiltration and manipulation on civilian populations to further murky interests. Microtargeting does not create the conditions for a robust democracy or a marketplace of ideas. Similar to the aftermath of Citizens United, Cambridge Analytica represents the demise of clear and transparent information and points to the fragility of democratic institutions in a world where billionaires are increasing their control and reach.
What Comes Next?
That brings us to our original question: what is to be done about the unprecedented scale to which money pervades and structures global governance?
Cambridge Analytica’s abuses of powers were, in many ways, enabled by institutional failure to prevent and respond to such unlawful acts. Moreover, the messages that the firm was able to disseminate reflect how democracy can easily be subverted by monopolizing on background noise and cultural anxieties that have persisted for centuries and will continue to persist in a world where technology continues to advance.
Regardless of whether court cases are overturned or corporations are condemned, wealthy individuals will inevitably have influence, but that is exactly the reason that average people cannot fall victim to their tactics and fail to interrogate the information they receive and the organizations they participate in. Vigilance, conscious consumption of information, and increased awareness will all have to improve in an increasingly deceptive world. Democracy works when we rewrite the rules that have failed to work in the past, and demand change. Preventing corporate capture of our government requires that everyone is making those demands.