Imagine this: One of the largest companies in Russia and the world, with billions of dollars in contracts with the Russian government, dumps $1.5 million into an American local election with the intent to shape the outcome to be more favorable to its interests. It donates or spends this money on the candidates it knows will vote for policies that keep its taxes low. We would have to imagine that the disclosure of such a scheme would touch off outrage, congressional hearings, wall-to-wall coverage on MSNBC and CNN, perhaps even special counsel investigations or the sanctioning of elected officials. It would dominate news cycle after news cycle.
Before you fire up Twitter and sound the dezinformatsiya alarm, this did not happen. What did happen is that Amazon, headed by the world’s richest man and armed with $230 billion in revenue last year, spent $1.5 million on an attempt to mold the outcome of the Seattle city council election. The effort wasn’t particularly successful—their candidates failed to win a majority—but the company may have succeeded in toppling some of their loudest opponents, including socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant, though many ballots that may tip in her favor remain uncounted.
Regardless of the result, the episode should serve as a reminder of the utterly insane state of campaign finance in America. It is bonkers that a corporation of any national origin, including America, can openly spend money with the intent of manipulating an election to their liking, whether or not it works (and it often does). It is wild that we are even talking about “Amazon-backed candidates” in any setting outside of a bribery hearing.
In the case of Seattle’s elections, Amazon dropped a tiny bit of its vast resources into trying to purchase a council that would prize the company’s interests over the interests of Seattle residents, and to quiet progressive critics who have credibly accused Amazon of worsening the homeless crisis. Last year, for example, the city council almost passed a “head tax” of $275 per employee to fund affordable housing, but repealed it just a month later after Amazon launched “a well-funded and vicious campaign.” (There are 11,000 homeless people in Seattle.) The company threatened to sublease space in its new building instead of occupying it itself, which it later did anyway. In 2019, Amazon donated $1.45 million to an organization called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which backed six candidates. Sawant’s Amazon-backed opponent, Egan Orion, “garnered personal donations from at least 18 Amazon executives,” according to Bloomberg.
The specter of outside influence over our elections is threatening because it undermines the ability of the American people to decide their own fate; the delicate project of democracy rests on the voters choosing the government, that old “by the people, for the people” idea. If that process doesn’t function well, whether it’s because voters are disengaged and turnout is too low or because a small group of wealthy people make sure their opinions are heard far more than everyone else’s, then the sanctity of our democracy can be called into question. Thanks to voter suppression and the aforementioned campaign finance madness, there is already significant cause for doubt.
Yet the discourse around foreign national involvement in American elections never really seems to interrogate the reason it’s illegal in the first place. We are supposed to understand instinctively why “foreigners” shouldn’t have a role in American elections, even though American elections affect the rest of the world to a frightening degree. (Reading these takes as a foreigner in the United States, I am also supposed to agree that it is outrageous for me to want to donate to a candidate whose policies will directly impact my life.) This is an outdated and false notion of what kinds of influence and interference truly are nefarious. It is a vestige from a pre-globalization world in which foreign governments were the greatest threats imaginable. It also underestimates how great the threat from the rich is.
If Russia packed up the Internet Research Agency tomorrow, American elections would still be incredibly vulnerable to manipulation, because foreign governments are not the only actors with an interest in screwing with our democracy. A billionaire like Tom Steyer can spend a trifling amount of his net worth, akin to your average American spending a few hundred bucks, to replace actual politicians on stage in the Democratic primary, all while his aides allegedly bribe local officials for endorsements with the promise of campaign contributions—which is all legal, as long as it’s disclosed. An organization like the United States Chamber of Commerce, representing most of the biggest corporations in America, can spend $10 million on elections (or $94 million on lobbying for that matter), in order to ensure the favorable status quo is maintained.