Co-written with Catherine Ruetschlin, Senior Policy Analyst at Demos.
Unfortunately for voters, the $3.7 billion spent over the most recent election cycle did not come with a gift receipt. Despite being rung up as the most expensive midterm in US history, nearly two-thirds of Americans sat out the election—the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years. Those who didn’t turn-out were disproportionately low-income people, who are increasingly shut out of the political process. It makes sense to see growing disillusionment with politics alongside massive outside spending, since the interests of ultra-wealthy donors are unlikely to reflect the experiences of most citizens. On issues like the minimum wage, the divergence can be stark. That is one reason why low-wage retail workers are making their case for better working conditions in big-box parking lots for the third straight year of Black Friday strikes. They need a public forum on the Walmart economy, and big-box retail took the last one on the shelf.
In our recent paper, Retail Politics: How America’s Big-Box Retailers Turn Their Economic Power into Political Influence, we found that the six largest big-box retailers in the US spent $30 million on campaign contributions and lobbying during the latest election cycle—that’s six times more than they spent in 2000. Walmart and Home Depot, in particular, rank among the top campaign spenders in the nation. And this spending is not like consumption spending on, say, some cheap imported merchandise, it is an investment with real returns.
Political spending of big business is as much about flooding the process with friendly faces as it is about establishing access once the election is over. The campaign and committee donations of wealthy interests first fill the playing field with candidates who share their priorities, and then elevate the issues they care about most. Over time, big-box retailers have supported Republicans over Democrats by a clear margin of 2-to1. But in the 2014 cycle these companies spent their political dollars widely, giving on both sides of the aisle—and even donating to opposing candidates in contested races.
This campaign spending combines with millions of dollars in lobbying to allow those with the fattest wallets to shape the country’s political agenda. As a result, the small population of affluent Americans sees their priorities reflected in our legislative objectives, even when the majority of the country disagrees with their preferences. For example, taxes were the most frequently lobbied issue by big-box retailers in 2014 by a large margin. This legislative area has proven lucrative for business in the past—experts in corporate strategy research show that a 1 percent increase in businesses lobbying expenditures yields a lower effective tax rate of between 0.5 and 1.6 percent for the firm. Yet when there is conflict between big corporations and other interests over policy change, policy sides with big business lobbyists the vast majority of the time.
Meanwhile, the increase in big-box retail’s political spending occurred at the same time that the most important lobby for workers floundered. Previous research by our organization, Demos, has found that unions are the only interest group that consistently lobbies in the interests of average Americans. However, data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that business interests outspend unions 15 to 1. The democratic chorus in Washington has shifted from one that is broadly in favor of business interests to one virtually devoid of any other voices. It is unsurprising in this context that after an almost two-decade fall, the share of Americans saying that government is “run by a few big interests,” is as high as 70 percent.
That loss of trust in the equal democratic voice for all Americans also reflects where the money is. According to data from American National Election Studies, unskilled workers are more likely to agree that government is run by a few big interests than their white collar and professional peers. That perception is reinforced by the escalating importance of private money in elections, and it shows an intuitive read of the very real problems with democracy, like research that suggests the preferences of average Americans simply won’t change much in Washington.
There are no Black Friday bargains when it comes to political contributions, but there are ways to make small-dollar donations matter more to those on the receiving end. Public finance, federal matching of small donors and effective lobbying regulations can amplify the voices currently drowned out by big money, and begin assuring Americans that democracy is not for sale.
This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post.