Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Future of US Democracy: Getting Excessive Money Out of Elections

Posted on | March 3, 2024 | No Comments

The 2010 Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision in Citizens United v. FEC ruled that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. A Pew Research Center survey in late 2023 found that both Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (83%) as well as Democrats and Democratic leaners (80%) agree that wealthy people contributing money to members of Congress can have too much influence on their policy decisions. In general, Americans believe that excessive money in US politics can undermine the principles of accountability, equality, and fairness that are essential to a functioning democracy.

This post introduces the problem of money in US politics. This danger includes the disproportionate influence of wealthy donors, the erosion of democratic principles, the undermining of fair competition in elections, policy capture and the distortion of policy priorities, as well as the potential for corruption and scandal. Money also plays a significant role in US political advertising, influencing the reach, frequency, and effectiveness of political messages on broadcast channels and through social media. The post then looks at some ways Americans can address the issue through a combination of legislative reforms, legal challenges, grassroots activism, and civic engagement.

Problems Associated with Excessive Money in US Politics

When political campaigns are heavily funded by wealthy individuals, corporations, and special interest groups, there is a risk that these donors may wield disproportionate influence over elected officials. This distortion can undermine the principle of political equality and lead to policies prioritizing donors’ interests over the general public’s needs. Political scientists are now talking about a “donor class,” a small group of wealthy urban and suburban residents who are able and willing to influence the outcome of political elections. Excessive money in politics can erode public trust in the democratic process by creating the perception that politicians are beholden to their wealthy donors rather than accountable to the electorate. This can lead to disillusionment with the political system and decreased voter interest and turnout.[1]

Large campaign war chests can create “barriers to entry” for candidates without access to significant financial resources. This competitive disadvantage can limit the diversity of candidates running for office and discourage individuals from underrepresented communities or with limited financial means from seeking elected positions. Incumbent politicians, in particular, generally have an easier time raising campaign funds compared to challengers. They can leverage their position in office to solicit contributions from political action committees (PACs), donors, and interest groups who have a vested interest in maintaining access and influence with elected officials.[2]

Excessive money in politics can also lead to “policy capture,” where wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups leverage their financial resources to gain access, influence decision-making, and shape policy outcomes in ways that benefit their interests, often at the expense of the broader public interest. These powerful interest groups can shape legislation and administrative regulations in their favor. A combination of campaign contributions, lobbying, and other forms of political influence can result in policies that benefit narrow interests at the expense of the broader public good. Policy capture predominantly occurs when regulatory agencies tasked with overseeing specific industries or economic sectors become influenced or controlled by the interests they are supposed to regulate.[3]

Political candidates and parties rely on campaign contributions to fund their campaigns. When wealthy donors, corporations, or special interest groups contribute significant amounts of money to political campaigns, they may gain access to elected officials and policymakers, who can feel indebted to their donors and more inclined to advance policies that align with their interests. Political campaigns that rely heavily on fundraising may prioritize issues of interest to wealthy donors over pressing societal concerns that affect a broader population segment. This skewed focus can lead to a misalignment between government priorities and the needs of ordinary citizens. A major concern is that Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited money to support political candidates, parties, or causes and exert significant influence over the political process through their financial resources.

The influx of large sums of money into political campaigns can create opportunities for corruption and unethical behavior, such as quid pro quo arrangements where politicians exchange favors for campaign contributions. This obligation can lead to bribery, influence peddling, and other forms of corruption that undermine the integrity of the electoral process and erode public confidence in elected officials. Even if such behavior is not illegal, it can undermine public confidence in the integrity of elected officials and the political process.

Money and Media

The 5-4 Citizens United v. FEC decision by SCOTUS unleashed extraordinary amounts of money for purchasing media airtime, producing advertisements, and targeting specific audiences. Candidates who spend more on advertising tend to also receive more favorable coverage or greater visibility in news stories and analyses, further amplifying the impact of their advertising efforts.

Money can also be secretly used by foreign governments to pay social media platforms, fake news websites, bloggers, and other online channels. These channels can be hired to spread disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda to influence public opinion, sow discord, or undermine trust in democratic institutions. This influence can include spreading false information about candidates, parties, or electoral processes.

Time and column space can be purchased on television, radio, newspapers, and digital platforms to broadcast their messages to voters via memes and other pernicious forms of messaging. The cost of advertising varies depending on factors such as the size of the media market, the popularity of the programming, and the timing of the ad placement.

Creating high-quality political advertisements requires financial resources to cover expenses such as production costs, talent fees, and ad agency fees. Candidates often invest in professional production teams to create polished and persuasive advertisements that resonate with voters.

Money allows political advertisers to target specific demographic groups, geographic regions, or voter segments with tailored messages. By using data analytics and targeting tools, advertisers can optimize their ad spending to reach the most relevant and receptive audiences.

Political candidates and campaigns with greater financial resources have a competitive advantage in advertising. They can outspend their opponents, saturate the airwaves with their messages, and respond quickly to attacks or developments in the campaign.

Money facilitates the production and dissemination of negative advertising. “Mudslinging” has been a particularly effective method in shaping public opinion and swaying undecided voters. Negative ads often require substantial financial resources to fund extensive research, testing, and distribution.

In addition to candidate campaigns, outside groups such as super PACs and advocacy organizations play a significant role in political advertising. These groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money independently of candidates, leading to a proliferation of political ads funded by wealthy donors and special interests.

Political advertising spending can also influence media and public relations coverage of political campaigns. Candidates who spend more on advertising may receive more favorable coverage or greater visibility in news stories and analyses, further amplifying the impact of their advertising efforts.

A scary issue is foreign governments using social media platforms, fake news websites, and other online channels to spread disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda. This covert activity can include spreading false information about candidates, parties, or electoral processes. These activities are aimed at influencing public opinion, sowing discord, and undermining trust in democratic institutions.

Getting Money out of US Poltics: Options

Efforts to reduce money’s influence probably require overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Many critics argue that the 2010 Supreme Court decision has exacerbated the problem of money in politics and that SCOTUS has become an instrument of the donor class. Although difficult, overturning or amending this decision through constitutional means could help restore balance to the political system.

But other methods should be used to create public pressure on this change. This endeavor would include legislating campaign finance reform, including stronger disclosure requirements, the public financing of elections, empowering grassroots movements, electoral reforms at the local and state levels, and promoting civic education and engagement.

A top priority should be implementing strict campaign finance laws limiting how much money individuals, corporations, and interest groups can contribute to political campaigns. This restriction can help reduce the influence of wealthy donors and special interests and measures such as public financing of elections, contribution limits, and increased transparency in campaign spending should be pursued.

Strengthening disclosure requirements for campaign contributions and spending can increase transparency and accountability in the political process. Requiring timely and comprehensive reporting of political donations and disclosure of donors behind so-called “dark money” groups can help voters understand who is funding political campaigns.

Implementing public financing systems for political campaigns can also reduce the reliance on private donations and level the playing field for candidates who may not have access to wealthy donors. Public financing programs provide candidates with public funds to finance their campaigns, often with restrictions on private fundraising.

Another critical strategy is supporting grassroots organizing and activism to help counterbalance the influence of big money in politics. Grassroots movements can mobilize public support for campaign finance reform, hold elected officials accountable, and advocate for policies that promote transparency and fairness in the political process.

Electoral reforms such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, or open primaries are also possibilities. They can encourage greater competition and diversity in the political arena, reducing money’s influence in determining election outcomes.

Educating citizens about the importance of participating in the political process and empowering them to become informed voters can counteract the influence of money in politics. Encouraging civic engagement, voter registration, and turnout can amplify the voices of ordinary citizens and dilute the influence of wealthy donors.


Excessive money in political elections corrodes the democratic process by distorting representation, undermining public trust, and prioritizing the interests of wealthy donors over the common good. Efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics aim to promote greater transparency, accountability, and fairness in the political process. Addressing the issue of money in politics requires a combination of legal challenges, legislative reforms, grassroots activism, and civic engagement to create a more equitable and democratic political system.


[1] Donor class from “The Check is in the Mail: Interdistrict Funding Flows in Congressional Elections” by James G. Gimpel, Frances E. Lee, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, in the American Journal of Political Science, April 2008. See also “Democracy and the Donor Class” from Gare Lamarche, the president of the Democracy Alliance. His speech delivered at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley on March 7, 2013.
[2] See the report “Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing” from the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law.
[3] Policy capture is an international concern. See the (2017) International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. extract from: The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience.

Note: Chat GPT was used for parts of this post. Multiple prompts were used, parsed, and verified.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2024, Mar 4). The Future of US Democracy: Getting Excessive Money Out of Elections.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea teaching broadband and media policy for sustainable development. From 2002-2012 he was on the faculty of New York University where he taught digital economics and information systems management. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawaii. He lives in Austin, Texas, when not in the Republic of Korea.


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