Mo Money Mo Problems: How “Pay to Play” Politics Have Corrupted American Democracy



Today, the biggest corporations have more than one hundred lobbyists, and spend approximately 2.6 billion dollars per year on lobbying, which is more than is spent to fund Congress per year (Drutman).



Corporate influence has been an issue in America since its founding, and has increasingly expanded into an institutional problem.

I first gained interest in the issue of corporate influence while following the 2016 presidential election. After learning a little bit about super PACs and how major groups like the NRA donated billions to the Trump campaign, I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe that you could essentially buy a political campaign or an election if you had enough money. It didn’t seem legal-yet it was.

Recently, my history class watched the documentary ‘13th’, which focuses on the progression of slavery and how it has manifested into the present day prison system. ‘13th’ talks about the group ALEC, a private club containing corporations and politicians that draft bills for politicians (“13th”). I was astounded that a group of companies essentially choose how the American public live their lives, and can still manage to stay in the shadows. I also found it worrying that this group (among others) was not on the front page of every newspaper. With these harrowing thoughts at the front of my mind, I began my research.

John Oliver’s take on ALEC (Nov. 2014):


Jefferson and the Beginning

The question of corruption is as old as the country itself. In the late 1700s, the two major political parties were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson (Kennedy, David M., et. al 126-146). Federalists believed in a strong central government, industrial growth, and that “those who own the country, ought to govern it,” as prominent Federalist John Jay put it (Kennedy, David M. et al. 145-146). This mentality scared Democratic-Republicans, who believed in a weaker central government, an agrarian society, and that the government should not give special privileges to certain classes.

The Gilded Age of Corruption

As time progressed, the Democratic-Republicans’ fears were realized, and corporate control over the government became a reality. The Gilded Age (1870-1900), caused by the Industrial Revolution, saw a rise of wealth and an increase in the economic gap between the rich and poor (Kennedy, David M., et. al 374-385), which allowed the wealthy and “special interest groups” to bribe government officials (“American Government in the Gilded Age”). In response to this wave of corruption a new wave of journalists, called muckrakers, emerged whose exposés on the wealthy helped increase national awareness surrounding corruption. Prominent muckraker Lincoln Steffens reported that “presidents of banks, great business men, and financiers [in Chicago]…cursed reform. They said it hurt business; it had hurt the town… [however] they offered no facts and figures to prove that the city was damaged” (“CHIEF SOURCES OF CORRUPTION”). Evidently, corruption was deeply-seated in American business and society.

Lobbying in the Shadow of Watergate

The Watergate scandal rocked the nation, and has since then become synonymous with political scandal. On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices. In the years after the break-in, investigation and speculation seized the nation, and eventually ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon (“Watergate: The Scandal That Brought Down Richard Nixon.”). The years that followed were inevitably marred by political turbulence and corruption.

A New York Times headline from the day of Nixon’s resignation (“Custom Research Papers on The Watergate Scandal.”).

During the 1970s, corporations felt that they had no voice in politics, which brought about the phenomena of lobbying. Lobbying is defined as “the act of attempting to influence business and government leaders to create legislation that will help a particular organization” (“When Was the Last Time You Said This?”). In addition, the surge of lobbying helped the switch from the progressivism of the 60s to the conservatism of the 80s (Hardy). An important group at this time was the “Big Three,” which was comprised of the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers. They feared that the economy was going south, so this “coalition of CEOs” joined together in order to protect their interests, notably stopping legislation that would allow laborers to go on solidarity strikes (Hardy).

A New Gilded Age?

As the country has grown, so have the appetites of its occupants. On the very first Forbes 400 list in 1982, only thirteen of the people listed were billionaires, but today, every single person on the list is a billionaire. But the uber wealthy are not just standing by idly with their money, they are “donating their dollars like never before” to causes on either side of the political spectrum, ranging from LGBTQ+ rights to reshaping fiscal and economic policies (Smith, et al.).

In the Wake of Citizens United

At the very core of the modern era of corporate influence is the Citizens United case. On January 21st, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the nonprofit organization Citizens United, stating that laws that prevented corporations and unions from donating money to political advertising violated the First Amendment (Duignan). The ruling protects individuals, corporations, and labor unions, but many critics have argued that the Supreme Court has decreed that people and corporations are the same thing (Berman). One critic, former president Barack Obama, said in his 2010 State of the Union Address that Citizens United would allow “special interests” to “spend without limit in our elections” (Duignan). It appears that Obama’s fears have been realized; almost 809 million dollars were spent in the 2018 Midterm Elections alone (“2018 Outside Spending, by Super PAC.”).

“A protester outside the Supreme Court on the anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court case” (Eichen, Adam).
A political cartoon depicting the effect of the Citizens United case on American democracy (Harris, Dodd).


super PAC – an independent PAC that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and organizations and spend unlimited amounts in support of a candidate, but that cannot directly contribute money to or work directly with the candidate it is supporting


Most notably, Citizens United opened the door for super PACs. The term ‘super PAC’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an independent PAC [or political election committee] that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and organizations (such as corporations and labor unions) and spend unlimited amounts in support of a candidate, but that cannot directly contribute money to or work directly in concert with the candidate it is supporting” (Merriam-Webster). Essentially, a super PAC can raise as much money as they want in support of a candidate, but cannot directly contribute to the candidate’s campaign. Most of the money in super PACs comes from a few wealthy donors. For example, in 2011, fifteen donors, all of whom donated upwards of one million dollars, made up more than one third of all money donated to super PACs that year. In addition, wealthy donors can donate as much money as they want to nonprofits with complete anonymity, who can in turn donate to super PACs (Lioz, et al.).

A political cartoon depicting the effect of super PACs on national voting (Northrup, Chip).

Fortunately, the Citizens United case and the popularity of super PACs have prompted a desire for change.

For example, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has proposed the DISCLOSE Act every year in Congress since 2012. This act would require campaign finance groups to disclose their donors, but sadly, this measure has yet to pass (Cicilline).

What can I do to help?

At this point you may be thinking: how can I affect change? This is too big of an issue for me to do anything!

But the truth is, the role of the individual in fighting the issue of corporate corruption is extremely important.

Here are some ways you can get involved:

Educate yourself

One of the best ways you can help get rid of corporate corruption is by educating yourself. By learning about the problem’s history and keeping yourself up to date with current events, you are taking an essential first step.

(Atlantic, The)

Educate others

Help raise the awareness of others! Once people are able to identify corporate corruption, they can begin to make change in their communities.

Grassroots Organizations

Joining a grassroots organization is a great way to inform politicians of their constituents’ desires, and these organizations are all over the place. It’s as easy as writing a letter to a politician, which is what you may end up doing if you join a group.

How can I do this?

In the digital age we live in, social media is an incredibly powerful tool. Create a website, a podcast, a YouTube channel, whatever fits your fancy. This is a great option as it is so readily available and easy for the average person to consume.

Change on Capitol Hill

Although things move more slowly at the national level, this is where big change will happen. This narrows down to policy. If companies change their policies concerning who they donate to and the quantity of their donations, the issue of corporate influence will be sizably reduced.

People march on the Capitol Building (Moseman).

Most importantly, federal reforms need to be passed, specifically regarding: the overturning of Citizens United, super PACs, and the amount of money an individual can donate to a political campaign. For example, the DISCLOSE Act would require groups such as super PACs and nonprofits to disclose donors who gave more than $10,000 to their campaigns, as well as requiring organizations to identify the people behind political ads (Cicilline). However, some of these reforms may not be possible within the next few years, due to the current members of the federal government. So what can be done in the meantime? Vote!



For more information about my topic, I have provided links to my previous essays:

Personal Interest and Preliminary Research

Historical Problem

Present Day Problem


Works Cited for this web page


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