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Money machines: unpopular and a waste of time

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Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers her concession speech on November 9, 2016, in New York. She may have had the worst of all political years, but she was hardly alone in taking hits during 2016’s bruising political climate. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

It was a pleasant April day in Denver, Colorado, when Secretary Hillary Clinton attended an outdoor fundraiser in a courtyard bounded by tall hedges. It was nearing the end of the Democratic primary and a group of journalists were trying to get a sound bite from the event. They didn’t, probably on account of the static machine that was set up to conceal her speech.

What was probably a benign attempt for privacy is symbolic of the way the Democratic party operates: Hold elusive big-dollar fundraisers, spend the money on pseudoscientific experts, and—if there’s enough time—take a couple of selfies with voters on your way to the next event.

As the debate on how best to become the “Party of the People” continues in the underreported race for Democratic National Committee chair, there is much ado about money, and for good reason. Through Political Action Committees, labor unions and wealthy donors, the Democrats raised $1.14 billion to spend on advertisements, pollsters and fundraising aides. Despite this capital, the immensely qualified Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost to a deeply unpopular one who spent less than half as much money on his campaign. Worse, the Democrats have lost over 900 seats across state legislators in the last eight years and had heavy losses in Congress.

This casts doubt on the cycle of bottomless fundraising from big donors for financial spending warfare that has become the norm.  Funded in part by corporate elites hungry for access, the Party has bred a self-serving election industry that has disconnected the political process from the very electorate that it exists for—and it’s a practice voters despise. The party needs to shift to organizing, not spending, to reach the electorate.

The super-wealthy have an easy way to connect with politicians: give a sum of money and you can attend a high-end fundraiser where you have an opportunity to state your case. This opportunity is a rarity for the lone voter. Empirical evidence suggests that these gestures give more benefits to special interests rather than reach voters. The most alarming example comes from a report that found that special interests have impacts on government policy while the average citizen has “little or no independent influence.” A Princeton study shows agreement among special interests is directly proportional to its likelihood of passing, while the general public is unlikely to get any legislation passed, regardless of public opinion.

This explains why the number one reason given for government’s problems is its being “influenced by special interest money,”  for both Democrat and Republican voters. The same study found the electorate quite decisive about curbing the influence of such campaign contributions: 77% of Americans support limiting them in some way.

In a divisive climate, it surprises one to read statistics on how much people in this country agree. The majority of Americans would support a theoretical single-payer health care system (58% according to Gallup), breaking up the big banks (58% according to Wall Street Journal), and reducing the prison population (69% according to the ACLU). But these are policies are in the fray because many of the special interests, having investments in our current system, are unilaterally against them, since they would hurt the business interests of insurance companies, banks, private prisons and more players.

Conservatives who respect entrepreneurs seemed to have looked past the fact that Donald Trump is a member of the very elite that is behind these campaign contributions. Perhaps this is because he was able to position himself as a friend of business rather than being sold to business. This differs from Clinton, who was painted as “crooked” and bought out by Wall Street—a persistent theme that was a major factor in her demise. More so, President Trump is only a Republican ceremonially—he is absolved of the corporate reputation of the Grand Old Party.

There is room for debate on details, but the Democratic “establishment” has not proposed a substantive alternative other than a better “connection of [their] message.” Their image—shaped by truth and smearing alike—is seen as supporting half of what people say and coming back with a quarter, and fine-tuning language may not only fail to resolve this bad reputation, but it might become worse if the Democrats can’t keep their promises.

If the Party truly wants to win votes, this sugarcoated corruption is indefensible. Even if they are not at all influenced by these contributions (which is dubious), they destroy credibility and disillusion voters.

Democrats don’t need to waste time arguing about whether their “identity politics” are too controversial or whether they need to cater more to rural voters. All of these roundabout excuses for why voters don’t support the Democrats will wash away if the party wipes the fruitless 24-hour fundraising events off their calendars. The party needs to cut the lip service, call for hundreds of town halls, and use this time of weakness to capture a wide range of policies that will support Americans and the middle-class everywhere.

And they must be bold. Don’t just tell voters you will defend Obamacare—tell them how you’re going to make it better. Don’t use Republican failures like in Flint to paint the Grand Old Party as villains—work to fix those failures and vindicate yourselves. Don’t just use fighting “special interests” as a punchline—expose their attempts to infiltrate the political system. The people will almost certainly support a party with the guts to use the most basic strategy in politics: listening.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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