Wealthy donors are playing an outsized role in US elections and this is apparent now more than ever.

FILE PHOTO: Democrat presidential candidate U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump looks away from each other during their debate in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 27, 2024. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
Democrat presidential candidate US President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump look away from each other during their debate in Atlanta on June 27, 2024 [Reuters/Brian Snyder]

In the aftermath of United States President Joe Biden’s train wreck of a performance in the June 27 presidential debate with Donald Trump, Democratic Party donors went into a tizzy over the incumbent’s perceived inviability as a candidate in the November elections.

Various wealthy donors suspended their monetary contributions to organisations aligned with the Biden campaign, stipulating that Biden must be replaced as a presidential contender before the money starts flowing again.

Among these donors is Abigail Disney, an heiress to the Disney family fortune, who explained to CNBC that “if Biden does not step down, the Democrats will lose”. The outlet also quoted Moriah Fund president Gideon Stein as warning that, unless Biden is removed from the equation, “my family and I are pausing on more than $3m in planned donations”.

Objectively speaking, of course, screwing up a debate is a far less egregious political transgression than, say, abetting Israel’s genocide in the Gaza Strip for the past nine months – a policy that is instead applauded by many of Biden’s top donors.

And although it is no doubt concerning to have an incoherent person serving as commander of the global superpower – or as the “first Black woman to serve with a Black president”, as Biden recently self-defined in an impressive verbal gaffe – the country does boast a solid history of linguistically-challenged leaders. These include Trump himself and George W Bush, the latter the source of the thought-provoking assertion: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

In Biden’s case, though, it is noteworthy that the president’s alleged incompetence was only elevated to the status of Very Important Issue when donors got their panties in a bunch. This, despite the fact that, prior to the debate, an Ipsos poll found that a mere 28 percent of likely voters in the US were confident in Biden’s “mental fitness to be president”. Following the debate, this figure dropped to 20 percent.

In short, it is just another reminder of the inordinate power and influence wielded by America’s donor class in a shameless plutocracy euphemised as “democracy” – where voting and other democratic charades barely conceal a reality in which the people’s will could not matter less.

While it may sound conspiratorial to say that big money controls the US government, it is just about the most unhidden conspiracy ever. Indeed, plutocratic operations have become so normalised a part of the political landscape that hardly anyone bats an eye when we talk about millions being flung around here and there in order to affect electoral outcomes.

Consider the slew of nearly-million-dollar checks made out to Biden’s joint fundraising committee, the Biden Victory Fund, by tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other elites after groups of prospective donors were hosted at the White House between June 2023 and March this year. As the Politico website notes in its recent report on the subject: “It is not illegal for Biden to invite donors into the White House, and prior presidents have similarly used the grandeur and convenience of the building to connect with political supporters and donors.”

And what more convenient setting than the very symbol of political power in the nation’s capital to underscore that it is the folks with monetary capital who effectively reign?

Beyond the straightforward financial manipulation of US “democracy”, of course, there is also the even shadier business of “dark money”, defined by the Washington, DC-based – and aptly named – OpenSecrets organisation as “spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed”.

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (FEC), which reversed campaign finance restrictions to permit unlimited spending by corporations and special interest groups, paved the way for a deluge of dark money into election campaigns. Significantly, the Citizens United decision is credited with helping to spawn what has now become an institutionalised pillar of the plutocracy: super PACs (political action committees), which according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School spent almost $3bn on federal elections in their first decade of existence alone.

In theory, super PACs are required to disclose their donors to the FEC; however, this requirement is rendered entirely irrelevant by the fact that super PACs can receive unlimited funds from shell companies and nonprofit groups that are not obligated to reveal their donors. The upshot is that voters are denied the right to know who precisely is endeavouring to influence their voting choices – and what interests these actors represent.

An analysis published by OpenSecrets in March indicated an “unprecedented surge” in dark money in the 2023-24 election cycle, with contributions from dark money groups and shell companies “outpacing all prior elections”. Ultimately, OpenSecrets predicted, the influx of such funds could potentially “surpass the roughly $660 million in contributions from unknown sources that flooded 2020 elections — a cycle that attracted over $1 billion in total dark money, counting political ad spending as well as contributions”.

And while Democrats like to make a stink about dark money as though the whole phenomenon is the sole purview of corrupt and unscrupulous Republicans, the Democratic Party has in recent years given its Republican rival a run for its (dark) money. The Democrats first surpassed the Republicans in spending from unknown sources in 2018, a feat that has been reprised in subsequent election cycles.

Not that it does not pay to be right-wing – just ask the Supreme Court, where the billion-dollar dark money industry is pretty much to thank for producing the most conservative court in nearly a century. Trump’s former judicial adviser and dark money master Leonard Leo played a starring role in the ascension of no fewer than three conservative justices to the court, which has dutifully busied itself dismantling basic rights and freedoms in the country.

Now, with obscene sums of money swirling around the field of campaign finance and general political influence-buying, one cannot help but think about all the other things that could be done with such funds – like improve the disastrous state of education and housing in the US or overhaul a healthcare system that is literally killing people.

But spending money to benefit the average human being in America would mean less money to invest in democratic charades ensuring the proper flow of capital and continued elite tyranny.

To that end, perhaps it is time to revise President Abraham Lincoln’s famed words in praise of the “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Because at the end of the day, the US is nothing but a government of the donors, by the donors, for the donors.