Corruption and Power Dominate Our Democracy. They Should Dominate the Next Debate, Too

August 15, 2019

The past two Democratic presidential primary debates focused on a number of problems that are important to voters, including gun violence, climate change, health care, and immigration. It was a good opportunity to hear what the candidates want America’s future to look like. At the next debate, however, the moderators should press the candidates on how they plan to make these proposals a reality. No matter the issue, the biggest barrier to solving the problems that plague our country will be the way our democracy has been corrupted by wealthy and powerful interests. We need a president who will lead on restoring democracy and tackle the influence of money in both politics and policymaking.

The crises our country faces—the daily threat of gun violence; the precarity caused by sky-high drug prices, health care costs, insufficient savings, and low wages; and the existential peril of climate change—are all connected by a single thread: power. A minority of wealthy Americans and big corporations have accumulated and concentrated power in our economy. In turn, through lobbying, political contributions, and a web of other influence-peddling tactics, they have used their financial prowess to dictate the way our government works. On any given issue, there’s a powerful constituency that is benefiting from the status quo and won’t let it go without a fight.

Here’s an example. Reducing prescription drug prices is a top concern for many Americans and is key to ensuring affordable health care for all. Democratic candidates like Joe Biden have cited negotiating drug prices for Medicare recipients as a commonsense reform. But here’s the thing: The drug industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. The controlling influence of the drug industry is the very reason why federal law prohibits the government from negotiating these prices in the first place, and the industry’s influence has compounded over time. In the last decade, the pharmaceutical industry spent over $2 billion lobbying Congress, and the industry ranks at the top of federal campaign contributions, according to OpenSecrets. When Congress wanted to add prescription drugs to Medicare back in 2003, the drug industry called in its favors and made sure that measure wouldn’t hurt its bottom line, ultimately prohibiting the federal government from using its bargaining power to keep prices fair.

Drug price negotiation is a promising idea, but it is nearly impossible to imagine how we get there without changing the power structures that govern politics and policymaking. On this and every other issue, it’s not enough for presidential hopefuls to talk about how they would fix individual problems. Voters need to know that candidates have a plan to structurally change the way that Washington works.

There are three different ways to understand how seriously candidates aim to dismantle these power imbalances, so moderators should be asking candidates a few key things.

First, moderators should ask candidates about how they intend to revive our democracy and disrupt the ties between financial power and influence over government. Moderators should also press candidates on their ideas for breaking the tie between economic power and political influence, including campaign finance reforms, stricter restrictions on lobbying, and policies to slow the revolving door between big company jobs and influential government positions.  Further, candidates should also be asked to speak to their plans for restoring fundamental institutions such as labor unions that act as a countervailing power to concentrated economic and political control.

Second, moderators should press candidates on how their policy platforms would dismantle—or reinforce—concentrated power in the economy. Some policies go directly after concentrated power, such as taxes on wealth or plans to break up big tech companies and other monopolies. Others affect economic power in a more subtle way; for example, policy proposals that provide benefits to the public through big subsidies to private companies, such as federal grants and loans for student aid that flow to for-profit colleges, can serve to increase concentrated economic power and promote harmful extraction, even though the same public benefits could be accomplished in a less extractive way, such as banning for-profit colleges and directing aid toward public schools.

Finally, moderators ought to ask candidates how their views on power shape the way that they choose to run their presidential campaigns. Some candidates are tackling power imbalances and corruption head on: Three presidential campaigns—Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders—have unionized, and almost all of the candidates have made various pledges regarding the types of donations they will accept, some more meaningful than others. From eschewing political action committees and big fundraisers to implementing fair practices for their own campaign workers, the actions that candidates have taken to date can tell us just as much as their plans for the future do.

Focusing on candidates’ views on power and corruption will help voters gauge how serious they are about making their policy plans a reality. Power-centered questioning will also help voters understand something bigger: whether a candidate is willing to make the kind of structural changes that we all need to build a more progressive, inclusive society. And that’s what this election should be all about.