According to a poll conducted by Monmouth University Polling Institute, only 26 percent of Americans supported the new tax bill in December. Conversely, New York Representative Chris Collins told reporters, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” It makes you wonder: who has the real power in the government, the people or the money?
Eight years after the Citizen United Supreme Court decision, lobbyist and donor groups have enormous influence over a democracy riddled with dark money. During the 2016 election, Robert Mercer, hedge fund CEO and co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, gave disclosed donations in $22.5 million to Republican candidates and other political committees. One lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, had 132 bills introduced in state legislatures in 2012 based on their models and have a significant influence on state policy like the "stand your ground" law in Florida. Companies including American Medical Association, AT&T, the National Association of Broadcasters, and Boeing spent more than $176 million to lobby Congress in 2015.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent $54 million on Republican candidates for Congress, and roughly $30.3 million went towards electing President Trump in 2016. The public is increasingly more aware of the role money plays in politics. The March for Our Lives movement brought attention to lobbying by the NSA and interest group’s role in policy. High school student and march organizer Cameron Kasky urged Sen. Marco Rubio to reject their campaign contributions. Large corporations' effect on Washington is extremely prominent today. Just look at Trump's cabinet picks. Rex Tillerson (previous chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil), Elaine Chao (board of directors of Wells Fargo), Scott Pruitt (received more than $300,000 from the fossil fuel industry), and others have strong connections to large corporations.
All of this effort has serious effects. A 2015 study done by Princeton and Northwestern professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that Business interest groups and economic elites have a substantial impact on U.S. policy while mass-based interest groups and individual citizens have little to no influence. According to the data provided, if “fewer than 20 percent of wealthy Americans supported a policy change, it only happened about 18 percent of the time. But when 80 percent of them were in support, the change ended up happening 45 percent of the time.” Interest groups have a substantial sway on policy decisions. Gilens and Page point out that some interest groups, such as AARP and labor unions, do favor some of the same policies of the average citizen, but argue that all mass-based groups together are not good representatives for the whole of the citizenry and their perception of the common good.
The specter of such concentrated influence has always been prominent in our democracy. In Federalist 10, James Madison analyzes the effects of faction and how to combat and control their impact on a republic. He defined a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" and argued that factions cause tyranny in government. Madison explains that faction is ingrained in human nature and that "the causes of faction cannot be removed." Relief is only to be sought in the "means of controlling its effects." In Federalist 10, Madison argued that one can combat faction through the election of representatives in a large republic and that it will be harder for unworthy candidates to rise to power. A larger republic leads to more interests and “the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters” are then elected. In this way, the people have a check on the government, regardless of the amount of money they can spend on election campaigns. Due to low voter turnout, the minimal power the majority is diminished. In the 2014 midterm elections, voter turnout was 35.9 percent. As voting turnout declines, factions gain more influence in politics and determining elected officials in Congress.
Today, lobbyist groups fit Madison’s definition of faction because they are organized groups "adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community." Although many interest groups argue that they are advocating for the common interest of the community, their actions tell a different story. For example, while many oil and chemical companies argue that their expansion creates jobs and therefore supports the common good, they disregard safety procedures and cause pollution. Such pollution leads to health problems within a community and reduces the values of their property in the area. In Louisiana, "facilities released more than 1.4 million pounds of chemicals linked to cancer into 688 local watersheds." The truth is, most interest groups are lobbying the government for their own interest and profit.
The idea that faction will counteract faction, due to opposing interests, is starting to deteriorate. Money, funneled to campaigns, is entirely controlled by wealthy donors and successful large businesses. The competing majority, or the people, only has influence if it has the resources to pay for influence. Politicians make promises to factions in exchange for campaign contributions. Politicians then developed these promises into policy decision. This deteriorates the voice of the public and an interest in the collective well being. Citizens are losing their faith in democracy because they feel their vote doesn’t matter. The belief that politicians are inherently selfish and distrust in government is affecting civic participation and general trust in government. The Economist Intelligence Unit maintains the Democracy Index, rating countries on their "adherence to 60 distinct democratic values." In 2016, the US scored of 7.98 out of 10. This was the first time the U.S. dropped into the category of a "flawed democracy," down from "full democracy." In further analysis, the report states that according to a World Values Survey, support for a democratic system fell among younger generations worldwide.
Citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with the government as factions ignore national interests. Individual lobbyists are not transparent, and many large companies and lobbyist groups are often secretive about their connections. In secrecy, public officials tend to act independently from the people’s interests. The fears of faction Madison expressed in Federalist 10 are manifesting in our democracy today. Fewer factions compete as a small minority gains power. In order to reverse this phenomenon, the answer seems somewhat humorous given my argument. Madison’s solution of more faction is the answer we need today. More interest groups are the answer. Currently, a small minority of quasi-aristocratic factions have a significant influence on the government such as Exxon Mobil and American Medical Association. To combat this phenomenon, interest groups that are more transparent and tethered to the interest of citizen groups need to have similar influence. There needs to be a system to keep groups accountable whether it includes a greater involvement of average citizens in the conduct of lobbyist groups or greater civic engagement in general. Regardless of the amount of money a company spends on a campaign the people still have the power to vote a representative out of office.