Is big money distorting American democracy?

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle applaud supporters after results showed he had been returned to the White House for a second term . Copyright Craig Warga/New York Daily News.

For a presidential election that centred on fiscal prudence, it is a telling irony that the just ended race for the White House between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney was also the most expensive in US history. The two candidates spent well over a billion dollars each. The independent research group Centre for Responsive Politics estimated the entire election to have cost $5.8 billion, more than the entire GDP of Malawi.
These staggering figures do not include the very significant contributions of independent groups which cannot be legally tied to a candidate but can generally support their cause or policies. According to the New York Times, these independent groups spent at least $522 million on television advertisements and other efforts to sway voters’ choice of candidate. 

The biggest of these ‘political action committees’ can raise vast amounts of money from individuals, corporations and trade unions. And herein lies the threat to American democracy. New analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the consumer group US PIRG reveals that much of the election campaign spending by independent groups has been fuelled by ‘dark money and unlimited fundraising from a small number of wealthy donors’.

“On Election Day, we're all supposed to have an equal say. However, over the course of the election a small group of millionaires and billionaires have had more influence than millions of middle class families,” wrote Blair Bowie and AdamLioz in a Huffington Post blog days before the election. It is a discomfort shared by most American citizens who believe in the sanctity of their democracy and the egalitarianism that lies at its centre. 

“It’s really not democratic, most American do not agree with the level of money in politics,” a young American studying in London told the BBC on Wednesday.

The prominence of big money in the world’s leading democracy is even more jarring when viewed from across the Atlantic. It makes UK election spending look miniscule by comparison. According to the BBC, a total of £31 million was spent by all parties in the 2010 general election, making US spending 120 times as much.

Obama and Romney both chose to refuse public funding, preferring to rely on their private efforts and avoid any caps on their spending. However, the case for public financing of election candidates remains strong if influence peddling by powerful interests is to be kept from distorting democracy. 

Without public funding or caps on private election war chests, it is inevitable that only big money candidates will ever afford to make a bid for the White House. Less resourced candidates are doomed to obscurity, regardless of how loudly their policies may resonate with voters. In the end, democracy is the biggest loser.