Money really does talk. At least in America, where defenders of political donations argue that their right to donate eye-wateringly high amounts of money to political candidates is protected by the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”
These arguments propose that using one’s economic capacity to support a political candidate is a form of expression. In theory this may not appear to be too troubling, particularly as all candidates will raise low figure, $10 to $50 donations from everyday supporters.
What does stir controversy is the role of big money donors. Take the super-rich Koch brothers, for example. They have been especially vocal about providing large sums of financial support to the Republican candidate who successfully woos them to move their wallet.
Money equals airtime. By courting the big money donors candidates are able to hire more media for campaign ads, from television commercials to lawn signs.
The controversies of campaign finance are by no means confined to the right of the aisle, either. Part of the popularity of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic ticket is the perception that he is far less indebted to political donors on Wall Street than Hillary Clinton.
Bill Clinton was noted for his ability to connect with both Democratic populists and big business, and Hillary is now seeking a similar persona for her campaign. This does, however, continue leave her vulnerable to the criticism that she is seeking audience with the bankers and financial elites who some believe worsened the global recession. The natural progression of these arguments suggests that no real reform of the banking sector is realistically possible, as political candidates remain handcuffed to these crucial donors.
It’s not only the banking sector that is implicated. Special interests and lobby groups actively find candidates to support, at all levels of American political culture. This is the ‘invisible primary’. Without winning at least some financial support during the invisible primary a candidate cannot hope to survive the costs of a high profile political campaign.
The exception? Donald Trump. Since Trump is primarily self-financed, he is not tethered to the promises he made in back rooms to company executives and millionaires. This allows Trump to be so ‘Trumpy’: he does not have to worry about alienating his donor lifeline.
For everyone else, the invisible primary remains an uncomfortable reality of U.S. politics, one that continues to set the framework for political debate and skew the issues that reach the national forum.