The United States may be turning a corner in presidential politics. Although the election itself is more than a year away, the latest reports to the Federal Election Commission show that a wealthy oligarchy of donors has come to dominate campaign finance, particularly in the crowded Republican contest. Fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the campaign so far, according to an analysis by the New York Times. This class of wealthy patrons, some with new fortunes and others of long-standing, is throwing money into campaigns, not of all which will end happily. But the preeminence of this clan of tycoons so early in the season is not a good sign.
The post-Watergate reforms sought to limit the corrosive power of money in politics, enhance transparency and encourage candidates to raise funds from a broad base of supporters. But new vehicles have become available that do the opposite, encouraging wealthy donors to make unlimited contributions, concentrating the power of the plutocracy and overwhelming the impact of small donors.
One of the most important of these channels is the super PAC, an organization that can accept unlimited contributions. Super PACs, which must disclose donors, are supposed to be independent of the candidates, but in fact most are not. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2012 election, all the presidential super PACs together raised about $26 million by June 30 of the year before the vote. Now, at the same point in the cycle, they have raised $258 million, nearly 10 times more.