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The Price of Power: Sanford panelists discuss campaign financing

big money panel

Business leader Adam Abram, political scientist Jim Piereson and journalist Jane Meyer (with moderator Joel Fleishman) discuss the influence of big money on American politics Thursday. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

The unprecedented wave of large, private donations to political campaigns deepens congressional gridlock worsens public perceptions that government is inefficient and threatens bedrock principles of democracy, according to the participants in Thursday night’s “Money Talks” panel discussion at Sanford.

“The massive donations we’ve seen in the past few campaigns pose serious questions about the fundamental idea of our democracy: one man, one vote,” Jane Meyer, a panelist and award-winning political reporter for The New Yorker, said. “They also raise serious questions about accountability and corruption.”

The panel was moderated by Professor of Law and Public Policy Joel Fleishman and also included philanthropist and political scientist Jim Piereson, the president of the William E. Simon Foundation, and James River Group CEO Adam Abram. Following comments from the panelists on campaign financing, the “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling and voting—among other issues—members of the audience shared their views and questions.

Professor of Public Policy and Political Science Kristin Goss, who organized the panel, said the growing popularity of large political donations will be especially relevant in the upcoming presidential election, forcing Americans to rethink the nature of their democracy. 

“Should we be concerned if America's billionaires work aggressively to fix public problems, especially in an age when government seems incapable of acting?” Goss said. “Do we need to create better means of monitoring or checking donors' influence? These questions are always timely, but especially so as we look forward to a presidential race in which one network of major donors is expected to spend as much as the major political parties.” 

Mayer, who has reported extensively on billionaire campaign donors, pointed out that though private wealth has always been used to fund public campaigns, the sheer quantity of money circulating through the government at present is unprecedented.

“I think people forget that as recently as the [1980 presidential election], there were strict limits on campaign financing,” Mayer said. “Now, the size of contributions are growing more quickly than we’ve ever seen in American history.”

The dizzying dollar figures—most recently, the $889 billion “pledge” for the 2016 presidential elections by Charles and David Koch’s pool of donors—stifle democracy and arouse suspicion in the American public, said Abram, who has donated to Democratic foundations and political campaigns in North Carolina.

“The real problem, in my mind, is the assumption of corruption,” Abram said. “When people hear about all this money, and they can’t figure out where it came from, it undermines their confidence in our government. That, to me, is the real tragedy.”

Piereson, who has had a long career in philanthropy, said foundations that donate to political causes are often a force for good, although he added that they cannot go unchecked. Many donors are narrowly focused, and their role can inhibit elected officials from enacting any far-reaching policies.

“I am a believer in foundations,” Piereson said. “Are they democratic? No, but a lot of things in American life are not democratic either, like the Supreme Court. But it’s clear to me that the more we spend on politics, the [small-scale issues] that donors want addressed, the less effective our government becomes.”

Although all three panelists conceded that there would be no easy solution to the lack of transparency in political giving, Abram remained optimistic about future campaigns.

“There is nothing more powerful than a good idea,” Abram said. “The best thing we can do [for Washington] is come up with compelling platforms, backed by public policy, that voters can rally behind. Americans need to feel like they can believe in those ideas and be an active part of the process.”

For a complete list of upcoming events sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, click here.