Can Money Buy a President?

They say that capitalism can exist without democracy, but that a democratic political system has never existed in a society without a market. In a democratic system, therefore, equal rights coexist with material inequality. The poor have the right to vote, but the rich influence the vote with their fortunes. Taken to the extreme, money without limits can determine a political process. Could it buy a president?

The announcement this week that a powerful network of ultra-conservative donors, headed by magnates Charles and David Koch, plans to spend close to $1 billion in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections appears to respond affirmatively to the previous question. The sum is certainly historic, although every electoral cycle has brought a new milestone. But above all, the Koch brothers now command influence on the same level as the large political parties.

Experts in campaign finance say that the funds from which the Kochs have drawn for the 2016 campaign will allow their network to take on the role of a de facto political party.

This figure defies the political status quo by equaling what the Democrats and the Republicans plan to spend in the 2016 campaign. In the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee spent $404 million and its Democrat counterpart spent almost $320 million.

At the moment, the network created by the Kansas multimillionaires is still debating whether or not it will use part of this money in the Republican Party primaries, which, without a doubt, would strongly impact the field of aspiring candidates. The party´s leaders complain about the continuous drain of power and money that the candidates suffer because of the multimillion dollar donations that began following the Supreme Court rulings which relaxed restrictions on campaign finance contributions.

The legal situation regarding political financing has changed a lot since Congress decided to intervene and regulate the federal campaigns after the Watergate scandal. In 1974, the Federal Election Commission was established.

In 2002, restrictions were placed on indirect contributions, the funds donated to organizations that are dedicated to promoting a candidate such as political action committees.

The Supreme Court then introduced a reform that caused donations to political parties and candidates to become the protagonists in the latest elections. In 2010, the door was opened to unlimited spending by political groups and businesses to support a candidate, basically creating a middleman, since direct support to campaigns continues to be limited. In 2014, the upper limit to what a person or party or electoral committee can donate was modified.

Asked for his opinion concerning the figure that the Koch brothers will contribute in 2016, the communications director of the Democratic National Committee, Mo Elleithee, responded sarcastically to the news website Politico: “Wait, you mean a bunch of billionaires are going to spend nearly $1 billion in pocket change to try to buy a president to rig the system for them and give them massive tax breaks that no one else gets? I’m shocked!”

Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, answered with a robust “no” when he was asked if money could buy the next president of the United States. Mayer warned that the candidates have to win votes, not just dollars. “Historically, Republican candidates have received more financial support, but often the Democrats are the ones who win.”*

*Editor’s Note: The quote, although accurately translated, could not be verified.

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