Three Cornell government professors largely denounced big money in politics at a panel Tuesday entitled “Reclaiming Our Democracy.”
The discussion was hosted by the United States Public Interest Research Group, a group that aims to prevent powerful interests from having too large an impact in government. During the discussion, each of the professors pointed out different negative consequences associated with large campaign donations on America’s political landscape.
Prof. Jamila Michener, government, began the main portion of the discussion by questioning the need for increasingly exorbitant spending on political campaigns.
“It’s not clear that this campaign spending is improving our democracy in any way, is informing voters, is equipping them to make better decisions,” she said. “If the money isn’t doing anything that’s beneficial to democracy … irrespective of whether it comes from large or small donors, we should be questioning it. It’s problematic.”
Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, said she believes that there may be a strong correlation between the number of scandals presidents face and the amount of time they spend raising money.
“Between a remarkable amount of fundraising, and ongoing war concerns, Obama doesn’t have much time to pay attention to how the government is run,” she said. “He hasn’t invested enough effort in the duties that the constitution seems to make his primary job: seeing to it that the laws are faithfully executed.”
She continued that the time Obama spends raising money had led to “administrative malfunction” relating to Veterans Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Affordable Care Act roll out, oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, the Secret Service and other agencies.
“It would lighten the president’s governance load significantly if he didn’t have to spend so much time raising money,” Sanders said.
The professors at the panel also argued that social and economic inequality often result from the presence of big money in politics. They argued that politicians who received large campaign donations are more likely to cater to those who financed their campaigns, leaving the interests of the less wealthy underrepresented.
Prof. David Bateman, government, said he hopes politicians would be less responsive to particular interests on Wall Street or in the Silicon Valley, but he views that as unlikely because wealthy citizens have a disproportionately large impact on political outcomes.
Bateman continued that famous people also have easier access to their representatives on Congress and are in a better position to affect legislation because of their status.
“Wealthy members of constituencies tend to have a clout that goes well beyond just the amount of money they’re willing to donate,” Bateman added.
Because of the disproportionate representation of wealthy citizens in politics, Michener said people needed to look at ways to prevent the system from becoming rigged against low-income citizens.
“We should be really concerned about money playing a huge role in politics when inequality is widening,” she said, adding that “poor people and disproportionately people of color” suffered as a result of an unequal system.
“If the system is institutionally rigged such that their voices can’t be heard, that’s a problem,” Michener said.
Bateman also said the presence of money in politics often prevents the success of strong, qualified candidates in congressional and state elections because they might be deterred by the amount of money needed to unseat an already elected official.
“There are districts where a strong challenger could take out an entrenched incumbent,” he said. “[However], they are not going to do it because their opponent will enjoy an incumbent advantage and because they don’t want to do all the work raising money for something that is probably going to be a loser.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Prof. Jamila Michener, government, began the discussion by questioning the need to finance campaigns at all. This is inaccurate, and in fact, she questioned the need for increasingly exorbitant spending on political campaigns.