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Andrew G. Bjelland: U.S. elections have more to do with money than people

FILE - In this April 23, 2018, file photo, supporters of a rent control initiative march near the state Capitol calling for more rent control, in Sacramento, Calif. State regulators are investigating a claim by supporters of a ballot proposal to let cities expand rent control that opponents have accepted improper campaign donations. The allegations will be reviewed by the enforcement division of the Fair Political Practices Commission, which said it had made no decision about the validity of the claims. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The 2020 election cycle is definitively behind us — an opportune time to take stock of our electoral-political system.

For decades, but particularly since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, megadonors and lobbyists for special interests have exerted outsized influence in U.S. politics. This election was by no means an exception.

According to OpenSecrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, the costs of American election campaigns continue to increase at an alarming rate. In 2000, the total cost for presidential and congressional campaigns was $3.1 billion; in 2016, $6.5 billion; in 2020, nearly $14 billion, almost equally split between presidential and congressional campaigns.

These figures include all funds expended by presidential candidates, Senate and House candidates, political parties and independent interest groups.

U.S. campaigns are also of far longer duration than those in other democracies. Former Vice President Joe Biden held his first campaign rally April 29, 2019. Hence the 2020 presidential campaign ran for at least 18 months.

The longest ever Canadian campaign ran for 74 days (1926). Australia’s longest ran 11 weeks (1910). British campaigns generally run five or six weeks.

American politicians barely celebrate one election victory before they begin strategizing and raising funds to assure success in the next. President Donald J. Trump officially filed his candidacy for reelection with the Federal Election Commission on Inauguration Day 2017, and shortly thereafter commenced holding campaign rallies. Even earlier — by December 2016 – Trump’s campaign committee had already raised $11 million for his 2020 run.

Senators and representatives typically devote at least a third of their time to soliciting campaign funds.

The 2020 election cycle again demonstrated that intelligent political debate is rare. Emotional manipulation — the stock in trade of many candidates and their media consultants — again occupied center stage. Political discourse further coarsened.

Congress is split almost 50-50 in both the House and Senate, and is likely to remain dysfunctional. For at least the past decade, obstructionism has been the norm and compromise far too infrequent. Consensus-building, it seems, is a lost art.

Elected officials and candidates of the two major parties will continue to compete for donor dollars and base support. Many officials will ignore the considered preferences of the moderate majority and instead attempt to impose on the entire citizenry the policies favored by their donors and their loyalists.

The defects of the U.S. two-party system are evident but, when all is said and done, reforming it has proved extremely difficult. The present setup serves the interests of many candidates, their megadonors, their political advisers, powerful financial institutions, major corporations, media moguls and extremely wealthy individuals.

There is a lot of money at stake and a lot of money to be made during an American election campaign. No matter who wins, one aspect of the outcome is predictable: “We the people” will continue to be represented by millionaires and multimillionaires, many of whom, to a considerable extent, promote the interests of multimillionaires and billionaires. Is it likely that any reform of the system would significantly alter that basic fact?

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, philosophy department, Seattle University and resides in Salt Lake City.

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