In a recent series of rants against the evil of money in politics, prominent progressive public intellectuals have been experimenting with the new narrative that unregulated high-rolling balls of dark campaign cash are fundamentally racist.
That’s obviously a racially charged notion. And given the all-powerful “cash rules everything around me” ethos that’s rapidly transforming American politics into an oligarchic tragedy, it’s easy to see it that way.
But arguing that this campaign cash is racist adds a tinge of its own racial taint.
Not that anyone is questioning the motives of The Nation’s way-left publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, or her very able writing sidekick Ari Berman. They routinely fight the good fight on topics of the underserved. Yet the latest in a string of stretched arguments in which Berman blasts the rise of political money as one more form of institutional anti-blackness racism, while vanden Heuvel plays backup to it on MSNBC, does more disservice than good.
It says, in essence, that black people are too touched with political illiteracy to do anything about it.
To his credit, Berman is spot on, though: “Voters of color are at a marked disadvantage in the wealth primary. They make up 37 percent of the US population but only 1 percent of campaign contributors and 10 percent of elected officials.” And we are glad he brings it up, because few do, especially in this era of continued high underemployment and dwindling assets for African Americans.
Free Speech for People’s John Bonifaz (whom Berman cites) also lays out (pdf) superb arguments on the intended or unintended consequences of too much money in politics when folks of color seem to have only so much of it, thereby leading to less opportunity. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Spencer Overton brilliantly jumps on the “exclusionary” side effects of unmitigated political money in an insightful must-read (pdf): “Because they control fewer resources, people of color generally have less opportunity than others to participate in politics.”
But as essential as it is for thought leaders to point it out, it’s equally critical to do something about it other than lament persistent trends. For a black electorate still searching for a political promised land, the failure to transition from sob story to proactive practice can lead to devastating results.
The key discussion, which rarely takes place, is what’s next, other than filing the usual briefs in predictably partisan court systems infected by political motivations and appointments. Personally, I grow tired of this pimped narrative that African Americans are politically immature or that we aren’t skilled enough in the game of politics. Clearly, a few hundred years of political activism and hand-to-hand combat against Jim Crow disprove that. Still, the insinuation itself can be a debilitating, racist notion because it actively undercuts the ability of black communities to mobilize and politically empower themselves.
As much as the left throws rhetorical grenades at the right over dark money, there are countless stories of highly qualified black candidates either overlooked or underfunded in Democratic primaries. There are also scores of black political operatives, strategists, political scientists, pollsters and pundits who get roundly dissed by media firms, academic institutions, think tanks and other outlets that persist in the belief that only white people can do this trick. Many a day- and nighttime cable talk show or Sunday news hour goes by with every panel seat filled by fast-talking white politicos, as if people of color don’t exist in politics.
In the conversation about campaign cash, we’re watching similar dynamics unfold. Whether those in the political consulting class like it or clueless voters don’t like it, mountains of cash in politics are here to stay. And the question is not whether that reality forces black America into a permanent political underclass, but whether black America can skillfully adapt to the permanent landscape of political finance.
Because, whine all you want about cards stacked against us, the reliance on money is not going anywhere. Political spending on congressional campaigns rose 555 percent (yes, three fives) between 1984 and 2012 and far outpaced the growth of income, national gross domestic product, college tuition or health care. Barring the outright ban of all money in politics, we should expect another triple-digit increase in the next 20 years (inflation not factored in).
Candidate Obama’s promise to change Washington notwithstanding, his innovative techniques in fundraising dramatically accelerated that upward trend at a time when it had slightly slipped. By 2012, national political campaign spending topped more than $2.63 billion, plus some unknown super PAC change.
Politics is a business. Democracy? Not a cheap proposition. It’s like those portable toilets at outdoor music festivals: We are, rightly so, disgusted and sickened into bouts of nausea by them, but where else can you go when you really, really need to go? Like any business model, politics requires an investment of not only time and great speeches but also money—lots of it.
And, so, why is it hard to discuss or craft a strategy whereby African Americans simply dominate that business as much as we easily talk about how much brothers dominate the basketball court? Or are we so convinced of black political inferiority that we can’t fathom any of that as a possibility?
Apparently so. There is still, to date, no major national black political action committee that has commanded the same politician-buying power and respect as PACs of lore like Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future or Karl Rove’s massive (yet half-failed) money haul known as American Crossroads. Yet total black consumption power, according to Nielsen, will top $1.3 trillion by 2017. Just 1 or 2 percent of that could buy a presidential election.
It can’t be that black folks are always relegated to a permanent state of politically luckless misery. With 2016 at our collective doorstep, at some point we need a conversation about what the black political community is actually capable of doing, rather than one insisting that we’re just not politically mature enough to do it. This is not rocket science. And those who claim to be in our corner should be giving us tips on how it’s done instead of holding gripe sessions that keep us locked out.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.