As the sums explode, so does the power of a tiny group of billionaires. Last spring, Chris Christie—a man not known for his humility—apologized to Sheldon Adelson for having called the West Bank, where Palestinians live as non-citizens under military law, the “occupied territories.” Last month in Buzzfeed, McKay Coppins reported that Marco Rubio, who avoids publicly discussing his work on a immigration bill disliked by grassroots conservatives, has been “enthusiastic” about discussing it privately with the big-money GOP donors who favor comprehensive immigration reform. It’s become commonplace for political reporters to discuss not merely the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, but the “Adelson primary” and the “Koch primary.” And for good reason: Winning the support of these men—who will likely give their favored candidate tens of millions of dollars—may be as important as winning certain primary states.
Legally, nothing can be done about this, at least right now. Earlier this month, a woman named Ann Ravel told The New York Times that the Federal Elections Commission, which is supposed to enforce those campaign-finance restrictions that still exist, will not do so. “The likelihood of the [election] laws being enforced is slim,” Ravel explained, “People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” Ravel should know. She’s the FEC’s chairwoman.
For the time being, therefore, this shift from democracy to oligarchy must be fought not legally, but culturally and politically. The stigma that comes from donating millions of dollars to a presidential candidate—and from receiving it—must increase.
The press can help make this happen. Right now, while presidential candidates experience proctological scrutiny from the press, mega-donors experience relatively little. As a result, they wield enormous power over government policy without facing the public glare that, in a democracy, those with great political power should have to endure.
There are two ways journalists can change this. The first is to appeal to donors’s egos. Today, it’s rare to see mega-donors interviewed on television. But, if asked, some would likely appear, if only to increase their fame. Lacking the experience in rhetorical obfuscation that politicians learn on the job, the ultra-rich would frequently say controversial and even lunatic things. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, in a 2013 discussion at Yeshiva University, suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran. If he said that on “Meet the Press,” journalists might ask Marco Rubio, who reportedly talks to Adelson every two weeks, to repudiate his potential benefactor. Rubio almost certainly would not. But the political cost of taking Adelson’s money would rise.
Savvier donors will resist the temptation to make public fools of themselves. In which case, the press should to go to them. Reporters should do whatever it takes, consistent with journalistic ethics and the law, to find out which donors met which candidates, and who said what to whom. After all, the creation of a secret political discourse, in which rich people pay money to hear candidates say things they won’t say in public, is profoundly undemocratic.