When Billionaires Battle for Public Office, Working People Always Lose

The upcoming Illinois governor’s race is more proof that big campaign spending narrows political possibilities and increases inequality.

Emma Tai, United Working Families

The wealthy few, by and large, engage in politics to expand their private profits, not the public good. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With dys­func­tion and polit­i­cal dead­lock on the rise in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., impor­tant pol­i­cy fights have been pushed to the state and local lev­els. And in a polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment already inun­dat­ed in cam­paign cash, big mon­ey has followed.

We must start now, and undertake the difficult task of building power in a rigged system. We have to look to organizing to give political expression to the social movements growing across the country.

So, too, has pub­lic dis­con­tent. Take the case of Chica­go. In a mid-Sep­tem­ber poll, two-thirds of Chica­go vot­ers said that city gov­ern­ment is seri­ous­ly off track. Just one in five approved of the direc­tion the city is going.

By most indi­ca­tors, the qual­i­ty of life for aver­age Chicagoans con­tin­ues to erode. High lev­els of gun vio­lence claim a trag­ic num­ber of vic­tims in areas across the city. Res­i­dents in gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods face ris­ing rents and the threat of dis­place­ment. And the assault on the pub­lic sec­tor has left schools, clin­ics, libraries, and oth­er pub­lic resources shut­tered or under­fund­ed while inten­si­fy­ing seg­re­ga­tion and racial inequities.

At a time when the peo­ple of Chica­go needs their lead­ers to tack­le these dif­fi­cult prob­lems for the ben­e­fit of the many, our polit­i­cal class has all too often pro­posed solu­tions for a nar­row few. 

Across all lev­els of gov­ern­ment, out-of-con­trol polit­i­cal spend­ing by cor­po­ra­tions and the rich is poi­son­ing pub­lic dia­logue, cor­rod­ing our polit­i­cal process and lead­ing to lim­it­ed options and bad outcomes.

Take the recent debate over imple­ment­ing a soda tax in Cook Coun­ty. In a big-mon­ey brawl between the bev­er­age indus­try which opposed the tax and for­mer New York may­or Michael Bloomberg, who sup­port­ed it, each pro­posed unsat­is­fy­ing solutions.

On one side, the bev­er­age indus­try pushed a pro-job nar­ra­tive to pro­tect its abil­i­ty to rake in prof­its by ped­dling sug­ary drinks. Mean­while, Bloomberg, one of the rich­est men in the world, harped on pub­lic health ben­e­fits to jus­ti­fy regres­sive tax­es on the poor and mid­dle class.

Drowned out from the debate were the voic­es of work­ing-class Cook Coun­ty res­i­dents, who might won­der if they could have both health and jobs if bil­lion­aires and cor­po­ra­tions paid their fair share — an option nev­er put on the table. Spend­ing on both sides of the soda tax fight served to lim­it the debate to a range of solu­tions” accept­able to the rich and powerful.

In Illi­nois, cam­paign-relat­ed dona­tions have explod­ed over the past 20 years, accord­ing to the non­par­ti­san Illi­nois Cam­paign for Polit­i­cal Reform. In 1996, polit­i­cal donors in Illi­nois spent $37 mil­lion on can­di­dates and cam­paigns. In 2016, that num­ber bal­looned to $413.2 million.

Each year, a small group of ultra-rich donors accounts for more and more of that polit­i­cal spend­ing. The same few names show up over and over again, includ­ing finance mogul Ken Grif­fin, the rich­est man in the state and top donor to Demo­c­ra­t­ic May­or Rahm Emanuel. Over the course of three years, Grif­fin also gave over $40 mil­lion to Repub­li­can Gov. Bruce Rauner and oth­er Illi­nois GOP leaders. 

Of course, when it comes to polit­i­cal spend­ing in Illi­nois, no one tops Gov­er­nor Rauner him­self. The pri­vate equi­ty exec­u­tive has worked to remake the Illi­nois Repub­li­can Par­ty in his own image through cam­paign cash and a lav­ish­ly fund­ed net­work of lob­by­ists and inter­est groups.

A new polit­i­cal boss for our new gild­ed age, Rauner has wreaked hav­oc on the state in a failed attempt to ram through his hard-right, big busi­ness agen­da. Prepar­ing to try again in 2018, he’s kicked off his re-elec­tion effort with a $50 mil­lion per­son­al con­tri­bu­tion to his own campaign.

Up against Rauner’s near­ly $67 mil­lion war chest, the Illi­nois Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has searched for its own bil­lion­aire to self-finance a guber­na­to­r­i­al cam­paign. Many par­ty lead­ers are look­ing to bil­lion­aire J.B. Pritzk­er, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel for­tune who has already donat­ed tens of mil­lions to his own cam­paign. Oth­ers are jump­ing on board with busi­ness­man Chris Kennedy, the mul­ti-mil­lion­aire son of Robert Kennedy.

Both major par­ties increas­ing­ly rely on the mon­ey — and can­di­dates — from the 1%, claim­ing there is no oth­er path to victory.

But what is lost when we com­pete on these terms? Depend­ing on benev­o­lent bil­lion­aires — no mat­ter how sin­cere — and the solu­tions they present us, means resign­ing our­selves to leav­ing pow­er in their hands and tak­ing pro­pos­als for deep­er change off the table.

The increas­ing con­cen­tra­tion of wealth and polit­i­cal pow­er are dri­ving caus­es of aus­ter­i­ty and inequal­i­ty, not a sep­a­rate con­cern. The wealthy few, by and large, engage in pol­i­tics to expand their pri­vate prof­its, not the pub­lic good.

Bil­lion­aire lib­er­als like Pritzk­er and Kennedy may be less despi­ca­ble than Rauner, the Koch broth­ers or Trump. But the fail­ure of these estab­lish­ment Democ­rats to name racism, extreme wealth and cor­po­rate pow­er as the pri­ma­ry cul­prits for the prob­lems plagu­ing our soci­ety shows they are com­mit­ted to treat­ing the symp­toms with­out address­ing the under­ly­ing diseases.

The ever-shrink­ing land­scape of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty is direct­ly linked to the explo­sion in polit­i­cal spend­ing by just a hand­ful of ultra-rich indi­vid­u­als. No won­der vot­ers are so disgusted.

The kid­nap­ping of our polit­i­cal process by the wealth­i­est 1% has been a gen­er­a­tional project. It will take many years to abol­ish cor­po­rate per­son­hood,” reverse the struc­tur­al changes that the well-financed Right has used to dis­en­fran­chise and mar­gin­al­ize huge swaths of the elec­torate, and to build the polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions we will need to advance a pro­gres­sive agenda.

But we must start now, and under­take the dif­fi­cult task of build­ing pow­er in a rigged sys­tem. We have to look to orga­niz­ing to give polit­i­cal expres­sion to the social move­ments grow­ing across the country.

Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders out­per­formed all expec­ta­tions in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry by build­ing a strong, diverse base of sup­port­ers, orga­niz­ers, vol­un­teers and small donors.

Unit­ed Work­ing Fam­i­lies, an inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion in Chica­go fund­ed entire­ly by work­ing peo­ple and our mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions, aims to do just that in the 2018 elec­tions, back­ing a pro­gres­sive slate of grass­roots can­di­dates of col­or who can begin to restore our hope in the process and to build the polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions we need on the ground to take our state and city back.

Emma Tai is exec­u­tive direc­tor of Unit­ed Work­ing Fam­i­lies, a Chica­go-based orga­ni­za­tion that unites work­ing fam­i­lies around eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and racial jus­tice issues.
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