Bernie Sanders has identified the cancer he thinks is coursing through the Democratic Party’s bloodstream. In speech after speech, the Vermont senator has gone after the party’s donor class — and its hold on politicians — as the central impediment to both a more populist Democratic Party and its electoral success.
“I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties,” Sanders said in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the election. “We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.”
Sanders’s argument has a lot going for it. Hillary Clinton campaign’s spent much of the summer fundraising with super-elite donors, and ignored the union organizers in the Rust Belt in a way that backfired spectacularly. The WikiLeaks emails revealed that conservative donors like Israeli hawk Haim Saban were closely involved with the Clinton team’s policy shop. Her campaign was certainly to the right of Sanders’s, which relied on an unprecedented grassroots fundraising effort.
But a report published last week by the think tank Demos appears to complicate this story. The research suggests that one of Sanders’s goals — to free the party of its elite campaign contributors — may actually be at odds with his other plans to move the party to the left.
The study found the party’s voters are actually to the right of its elite financial backers on some key issues. If you could erase the donors’ influence, the Democrats might actually move right — not left — on causes like climate change and banking regulation.
Where donors do pull the party to the right is on questions of taxes and budgets. Breaking free of elite donors may moderate Democrats’ far-left stances on some social and environmental issues, but doing so would also free it to make the populist, class-based “soak the rich” appeals that Sanders sees as essential to the party’s future.
Wealthy campaign donors move American politics to the right overall
Demos analyst Sean McElwee is clear that his main takeaway from the study is that overall, across the entire political spectrum, money in politics shifts policy to the right.
“The core takeaway here is that these donors are much more conservative than the population,” he says.
Vox’s David Roberts wrote up this part of the study. As he writes:
Donors are, on average, wealthier, older, whiter, more conservative, and more likely to be male than the general voting population; the larger the donations, the more wealthy/old/white/male donors get. Donors are also more supportive of fiscal austerity and more opposed to President Barack Obama’s agenda than the voting public.
In short, the donor class drags US politics to the right of median public opinion.
The report produces some shocking statistics to tell this story. White men are 57 percent of all donors but just 35 percent of the population; women of color are 13 percent of the population but 6 percent of political donors.
The most influential donors are also much more conservative than the average voter. Fewer than 40 percent of them support key Obama initiatives that are supported by more than 60 percent of the public.
“The rise of big money politics pulls Republican politicians to the right and increases their chances of gaining power,” McElwee says.
Elite Democratic donors pull the party to the left on some issues
That said, an interesting and more complicated finding from the study is that on several key issues, the Democratic Party’s donor class pulls the party to the left.
Left-wing activists often say that if they could check the influence of big money over their own preferred political party, its elected officials would be more likely to adopt a range of progressive policy positions. On some issues, that’s probably true. But the Demos data suggests it’s far from true across the board.
On climate change, for instance, wealthy donors are clearly more supportive of taking action than the party overall:
That’s true for immigration reform as well. Wealthy Democratic donors, for instance, are also much less supportive of allowing police to subject undocumented immigrants to questioning:
Demos found this to be true for a host of policy proposals. Democrats’ donor base was to the left of its voters when it came to the Waxman-Markey bill (an aggressive carbon emissions reduction proposal), Obama’s stimulus package, the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act, and the Affordable Care Act:
In a New Republic write-up of the Demos report, Sarah Jones says the report points to one explanation for the Democratic Party’s “reluctance to take on a more progressive policy platform” — that “it’s still beholden to the whims of a few exorbitantly wealthy white men. And that’s a significant obstacle to the party’s populist wing.”
But Demos’s report suggests that’s too simplistic. “These donors seem to be on board with much of the progressive agenda,” McElwee said in our interview. “I think Democrats can move to the left under the status quo and not have trouble with the donors.”
How money moves the Democratic Party closer to the needs of the rich
But while some progressive donors may be to the party’s left on some issues, stopping the story here would miss the more fundamental ways money warps the party.
That’s particularly the case on tax and budget issues. Here, in the universe of everyone who gives to the Democratic Party, donors are more likely than the party’s rank and file to call for higher tax rates and to oppose domestic spending cuts.
But when it comes to the most wealthy and elite Democratic donors — the ones Sanders has targeted as the main problem with the party — you see a massive divide between what the donors believe and what the party believes. Just 4 percent of Democrats’ wealthiest donors believe in higher taxes, compared with 23 percent of the party. The study really does suggest, as Sanders would, that the very upper crust of the party’s donors stands in the way of more populist tax and domestic spending initiatives.
Then there are other important ways a reliance on this elite crust of donors could change the party’s direction and messaging.
In our interview, McElwee noted that the amount of time Democratic politicians have to spend fundraising will leave them more closely attuned to the top priorities of the wealthy. (Other money-in-politics experts have made similar arguments to me in the past.) The worry is that by surrounding yourself with the wealthy during endless campaign fundraisers, politicians will campaign like and adopt the worldviews of the financial elite — no matter how liberal those donors score on some issues.
“If you have a donor class that’s very white, very male, and very white — as our research shows — you’re changing the way the Democratic Party thinks about politics,” McElwee says. “Because it means a lot of these biases of these donors — the bias toward thinking about national politics, the bias toward wanting to seem important and to feel like their money is doing something big, is going to structurally change how Democrats do politics.”
Moreover, there’s the critical fact that the Demos research does not address the donor preferences of corporations and other special interests that have funneled campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. (The 2016 Democratic National Convention, for instance, was heavily subsidized by corporations with a direct interest in influencing Democratic policy.) Those institutions are almost certainly uniformly to the right of the public when it comes to issues like regulation and corporate taxation.
“The bigger problem you’re going to face here is when you start talking about corporate donations and corporate lobbying — which are much more powerful forces pulling the party to the right than the individual donors,” McElwee says.
Money, politics, and ideology have a complicated relationship
This is not an academic debate. In the race last month for control of leadership of House Democrats, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio challenged Nancy Pelosi by attacking her for being too close to the party’s big-money interests.
“We [need] to distance ourselves from the perception that we as a party care more about the donor class than we do about the working class,” Ryan told me in an interview. “Our constituents — including many, many, many Democrats — voted for Trump because they thought the Democrats were in the tank with the wealthiest people in the donor class and the elites and Wall Street.”
But Ryan’s bid failed — in part because he wasn’t backed by the progressive wing of the caucus. And there’s an understandable reason the left wing of the House Democratic caucus and their allies largely stayed out of the race: Pelosi has one of the most progressive voting records of anyone in Congress. Her affluent San Francisco district and prolific fundraising perfectly capture the interconnectedness between the Democratic Party’s donor class and the party’s commitment to progressive stances on a range of environmental and cultural issues that attract the passionate support of some of the party’s biggest donors.
Whether the party can raise enough money to remain competitive in congressional races without these donors is a big question mark facing the party. But if Democrats were to cut ties with their major donors, we would likely expect an ideological pivot rather than a clear shift in one direction or another. Democrats would likely moderate their commitment to the somewhat extreme positions of some superrich activists while also leveling more broadly popular attacks on the economic interests of the superrich.