On Tuesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) lost his bid for reelection against Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a pro-Israel centrist backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation's most powerful Israel lobby group, to the tune of at least $14.5 million (up to $17,000 per hour).

The primary had been framed as a test of AIPAC's continued strength within the Democratic Party amid widespread backlash against Israel's brutal war in Gaza. In recent years, the group has come under fire for backing far-right Republicans, including members of Congress who refused to certify President Biden's 2020 election victory over Donald Trump. But when the dust had settled, questions of its power were answered and Bowman was trounced.

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Setting aside personal politics and views on the candidates and outcome, the Bowman/Latimer race has serious and concerning implications for American democracy as the most expensive congressional primary in U.S. history. According to OpenSecrets, which tracks political spending, outside groups put $17.7 million toward helping Latimer win–roughly six times the amount outside groups supporting Bowman spent ($2.9 million).

The primary in New York's 16 congressional district may have raised the bar for spending, but the cost of running for federal office has been on the rise for decades. OpenSecrets notes that the total amount spent on congressional races in the 1998 midterms was $1.6 billion. In the 2022 midterms, that number had increased to $8.9 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that's a nearly 207 percent increase.

The impact of all of this spending on our politics cannot be overstated because the money has to come from somewhere. In 2016, Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan, who has since retired, told CBS that the political parties recommend members of Congress spend about 30 hours per week fundraising. That's a lot of time spent talking to donors and doing work that is not governing–and in terms of efficiency, big donors are better than small donors.

The root of the problem traces back decades, to 1976. That was the year the Supreme Court, stacked with justices appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, handed down its multi-part ruling in the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo. Notably, one of those justices was Lewis Powell Jr., a corporate attorney who, less than two months before his nomination to the bench, had authored an infamous memorandum for the nation's largest business lobby group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, outlining the battle plans for how corporate America could wage a counterrevolution against the left. The so-called Powell Memorandum became the framework for the modern conservative movement and sparked the creation of the political Right's dark money network.

At issue in Buckley were federal regulations governing political spending. In the wake of the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon's presidency and cratered public trust in government, Congress passed a series of amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA). The law, signed by Nixon himself a few years earlier, regulated spending and fundraising by political campaigns.

The FECA amendments included hard limits on how much individuals could contribute to candidates for federal office, how much candidates and their campaign committees could spend, how candidates could spend from their personal funds, and how much individuals could spend on politics independent of campaigns for federal office.

In its ruling, the court upheld direct contribution limits, but struck down the other expenditure caps on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. To sum up the precedent succinctly, spending was a protected form of speech. The court reasoned that while the government had a compelling interest in limiting corruption and the appearance of it, outside political spending posed no risk of creating either.

"The absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate," the court wrote. "Rather than preventing circumvention of the contribution limitations, [the independent expenditure limit] severely restricts all independent advocacy despite its substantially diminished potential for abuse."

Over the years, the Buckley precedent has been expanded. In the 2010 case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Court, once again stacked with conservative justices appointed by a Republican President, held that corporations had the same right as individuals to spend unlimited sums of money from their treasuries on politics. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals followed that up with SpeechNow v. FEC, which applied the precedent from Citizens United and struck down limits on individual contributions to 527 nonprofits, clearing the way for superPACs.

The end result of these cases opening the floodgates for political spending has been nothing short of a doom spiral for American democracy. How it works is simple: Monied interests spend their wealth to influence politics–public opinion and those power. OpenSecrets reported in 2020 that "the 10 most generous donors and their spouses injected $1.2 billion into federal elections over the last decade," noting that "that tiny group of major donors accounted for 7 percent of total election-related giving in 2018, up from less than 1 percent a decade prior."

By throwing their money around, America's wealthy have driven up the cost of running for office, which, in turn, has ensured that most successful candidates either come from money or are allied with it. For example, a majority of the 116th Congress were millionaires. The result has been a government that is more responsive to those at the top of the economic ladder, which further enriches them at the expense of the general public, giving them even more ability to influence politics.

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In 2014, a study from two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, found that "Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." While subsequent research has challenged this finding, suggesting the influence of the rich and regular Americans on policy outcomes may not be as stark, even some of that research has demonstrated that the former have disproportionate influence relative to their population size.

For example, a paper by University of Texas at Austin graduate student J. Alexander Branham, University of Michigan professor Stuart Soroka, and UT professor Christopher Wlezien rebutting the Gilens/Page study found that on economic issues where the rich and ordinary Americans disagreed, the rich got their preferred policy 57.1 percent of the time.

A 2022 report from the Congressional Budget Office found that between 1989 and 2019, "Wealth became less equally distributed...The share of total wealth held by families in the top 10 percent of the distribution increased from 63 percent in 1989 to 72 percent in 2019, and the share of total wealth held by families in the top 1 percent of the distribution increased from 27 percent to 34 percent over the same period, CBO estimates. By contrast, the share of total wealth held by families in the bottom half of the distribution declined over that period, from 4 percent to 2 percent."

Beyond simply empowering the wealthy and powerful in America, Buckley and its progeny have created a loophole for foreign actors to throw their money around in our politics through nonprofits that do not have to disclose their funding.

The system is untenable long-term. Money may not win every policy battle or every political race, particularly when those races are well-publicized. For example, Hillary Clinton famously out-raised Donald Trump in 2016 and had more outside spending support only to then lose the election (admittedly with a popular vote win). But while the win rate may not be perfect, money is a good predictor, which is why so much of it is flowing into our political system.

Simply put, American democracy is for sale.

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