Panelists at the conference “Money in Politics: A Barrier to a 21st Century Civil Rights Agenda?” on Thursday last week, including PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker, held an important conversation about how big money in politics today is impeding crucial civil rights progress. Baker was joined on the panel — which was moderated by The American Prospect’s Eliza Newlin Carney — by Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org, Spencer Overton of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Janai Nelson of the NAACP, and Heather McGhee of DEMOS. Their dialogue explored the socioeconomic and racial implications of the way we fund elections, and how big money in politics serves as a barrier to a working and representative democracy in the United States. As the panelists made clear, in today’s political system, people of color, women, and low-income people often do not have an equal voice in our democracy.
Heather McGhee remarked that “the campaign finance system currently has inherent racial bias,” and noted that the money coming into our political system is overwhelmingly from wealthy white communities. Baker elaborated on this by discussing how many of the policies now in place are those favored by these wealthy interests, and highlighting the lack of adequate disclosure of political contributions as a barrier to organizing against these discriminatory policies. Robinson picked up that theme, discussing how the lack of timely disclosure becomes a barrier for activists trying to connect the dots between political contributions and political outcomes. Overton, who has direct experience with fundraising for campaigns, discussed the pressure to court super-rich donors who have the capacity to give massive sums, rather than reaching out to larger numbers of more modest donors. And Nelson tied money in politics reform to voting rights and outlined the need for a “deliberative democracy” that is responsive to the people.
As the panel drew to a close, panelists discussed how to address this issue moving forward. Baker made the point that currently there aren’t enough elected officials who are fighting for solutions to counteract big money in politics. McGhee reiterated that, despite a few notable exceptions, there has not been sufficient attention given to this issue from politicians serving in office.
It is time for a campaign finance system and a political system no longer run only by those with money and power. To achieve equitable public policies we need a fully representative democracy where all people, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, have an equal voice in the democracy, and that currently is simply not the case.