Yet by "the tiniest fraction of the one percent" I don't necessarily
mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to
spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest.
That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different
group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming
legislation. But the key is that under the system we've allowed to evolve, a
tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don't
A tiny number of Americans -- .26
percent -- give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05
percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent
give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent -- 196 Americans
-- have given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the
presidential elections so far.
These few don't exercise their power directly. None can simply
buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the
source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter
on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections
every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the
second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that
tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them
banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.
Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy.
I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of
Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest,
a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that
The only way to cure this disease is to spread the power to fund
elections more broadly. Just as democracy spreads the vote among the millions
it calls citizens, representative democracy in America must spread the power to
fund elections among a group larger than those named "Lester." We need a world
were at least 30 million must band together to block the reform of 300 million -- not this world, where 30,000 can assure that no sensible reform can
There are many ways to diffuse the power to fund elections. I've
proposed a system of democracy vouchers, which would give every voter a stake
in funding congressional campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act would have established
a system of matching funds, which would have generally amplified the power of small-dollar
contributions. Either system would dramatically broaden the range of
effective funders of congressional campaigns, and thereby weaken the
opportunity for rent-seeking.
But weaken. "Eliminate" is not possible in a world governed by the logic of
Mancur Olson. But by funding elections as we do, we have made Olson's problem
fatal. It isn't just regarding issues at the margin that concentrated interests beat
diffuse interests, efficiency notwithstanding. It is on practically every issue
that matters. A nation that can't resolve sensibly every issue that matters is
a nation that will fail.
We must come to see this. Soon.