Feature

How a tiny sliver of the population pays for local elections

Where does Rahm Emanuel get his political contributions? Rich white people, of course.

America is rich and has fewer restrictions on political spending by the day. So our political campaigns are expensive. But we also have tremendous income and wealth inequality — greater than any of our industrialized peer nations.

Put those two together, and it necessarily implies that rich people will have a lot of influence over the political system. It's been a constant theme of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign (and Donald Trump's too, to a lesser extent). Lots of studies have been done about the influence of the wealthy on the federal level — but comparatively few on smaller political units.

However, that is about to change, with the release today of a report on the demographics of donors in the 2015 Chicago mayoralty race, from the think tank Demos. They find that in a city that is 39 percent white, a small minority of wealthy white people comprise the overwhelming majority of winner Rahm Emanuel's donors — which goes some way toward explaining why Emanuel has advanced the policies he has.

Demos policy analyst Sean McElwee produced the report, with assistance from University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science professors Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes. The whole paper is worth reading, but most of the story is told in these two charts. Here is the percentage of large donors (contributing over $1,000) who gave to Emanuel versus his opponent "Chuy" Garcia, compared to the same chart for small donors (less than $150):

Now here are the general racial demographics of each candidate's supporters:

In a nutshell: Rahm Emanuel relied overwhelming on large donations from a very nearly exclusively white pool of donors — who also, as further analysis shows, largely live in the same few rich wards of the city (save for non-Chicagoans, as Emanuel also did a lot of fundraising outside the city). Even Garcia's donors were disproportionately white, though to a much lesser extent. "We expected going in there would be some demographic disparities," McElwee told The Week. "But Chicago might be unique in how bad it is."

Now, it's important not to exaggerate the power of money in politics, since much of its power comes from people assuming it's the beginning and end of political power. In the 2015 election, Emanuel had the good fortune of an inexperienced opponent. And the discovery that he had suppressed the horrifying dashcam video of Laquan McDonald being brutally shot to death by police would have certainly destroyed Emanuel's campaign, had it happened before the election. One cannot simply purchase an election outright.

However, money still matters a lot, and it probably matters more on the local and state level than it does nationally. As McElwee notes, the donor class has sharply different ideological beliefs than the public at large. For obvious reasons, they tend to resist the tax increases necessary to pay for better services, and tend to support "centrist" austerity derp like the Bowles-Simpson program. In other words, they're more conservative.

When a politician spends much of his waking life circulating among such people, listening carefully to their grievances and their ideas, and trying to convince them he's worth a large donation, it's only human nature that he will tend to sympathize with some of their views. From the other side, making such a process a hurdle one must clear will tend to select for candidates who are comfortable with flattering the wealthy or simply share their views.

So elections cannot be bought like ground beef, and one cannot simply disregard the expressed will of the voters. But when it comes to complicated budget arguments, tax giveaways for the rich, and sundry other subjects that can fly under the radar, the influence of the rich is powerful indeed. This is why Emanuel has spent so much of his time as mayor privatizing public services and in bitter fights with the Chicago teachers' union over education cuts.

As McElwee argues, one very obvious solution to this would be a system of public finance for elections, so candidates can run for office without needing to spend half the campaign on bended knee before the local rich. But at any rate, this report is just the first in a series that will carry out similar analyses on D.C., Miami-Dade County, each individual state, and eventually the nation as a whole. Undoubtedly each will have their own demographic wrinkles, but rest assured: The voices of America's rich are being heard everywhere.

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