The Election Industry vs. Democracy

by Steve Heikkila


The Campaign-Industrial Complex

Laundry detergent and Kamala Harris are very different products, but the methods and techniques by which each is sold is remarkably similar. And not just Harris obviously, but also “Mayor” Pete, Beto, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and the rest of the Democratic presidential contenders. And recalling the 2016 GOP presidential primaries let’s not forget Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and the full GOP family of products. Empty suits jockeying to be stuffed with cash, offering up poll-tested talking points in the hopes that one or two of them might ‘stick’. Their language is artfully vague enough to allow them to lean in if a sound bite resonates, and to plausibly disavow, reinterpret, and deflect if it doesn’t. If it sometimes seems as though they’re speaking just slightly over your head, they are. Bear in mind that as a poor, uninfluential voter you’re only nominally the target audience. They’re pitching to the donor class who funds their exorbitantly expensive campaigns. The donor class who ultimately determines with investment dollars who will be elected.

TV Ads, Long Campaigns, and SuperPACs

This year’s Canadian federal election campaign season will run for 40 days. 40 days! It’s like they never end! Can you imagine having to listen to political candidates pitch their platforms for over a month?

Requiem for the Median Voter Theorem

Suggesting that all of this money in politics might have a corrupting influence on our democracy is an outlandish understatement. It’s obvious even to the most unobservant citizen. Nevertheless, most people–from average voting citizens to political pundits and academics–continue to evaluate American elections as though they’re a public democratic institution rather than a commercial industry. They want to know what voters think, what their issues and concerns are, and how they’re likely to vote–as though the dog of democracy still wags its tail rather than the tail wagging the dog. One would be better off evaluating elections according to economic investment principles that apply to markets, because this is, after all, now they actually function.

Duopoly and the Vanishing Middle Class

In his book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Harvard University economist Peter Temin offers what ought to be an obvious observation concerning the assumptions behind the Median Voter Theorem. If winning policy proposals reflected where the majority of voter support lies, then issues important to the low-wage sector would dominate American politics. This, simply because more than half of the American electorate are from the low-wage sector. Of course, as is obvious to all of us, that’s not what happens. Quite the contrary, actually. Most Americans want to protect Social Security, they want to pursue economic policies that will result in higher wages, they want access to affordable education, and they want protection against the danger of bankruptcy resulting from medical debt. Public support for these issues is consistently high even among Republican voters. And yet we don’t even get an opportunity to vote on them in any meaningful way.

The Investment Theory of Political Parties

“The real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reason for investing to control the state,” explains political scientist Thomas Feguson. “Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate.’’ This is the basic thesis of the Investment Theory of Political Parties (the Investment Theory for short). Let’s unpack it a bit.

The Investment Theory and the Election Industry

There is nothing particularly sinister or conspiratorial about the way corporations and billionaires control the political system through financial investments. It is, rather, more of a structural consequence. Investing in politics in this sense is no different than any other business investment. Corporations respect the same bottom line and invest in anticipation of a good ROI. If you’re an investment bank or an oil company that could make a lot more money if certain sectors of your industry were deregulated, then it makes sense to invest in politicians and parties that will work to make that happen. And if this investment runs into the millions, yeilding a return in future billions, that’s a damn good investment. That’s how capitalism works, and when capitalism swallows the political sphere, that’s also how politics works. No hard feelings. As the line from The Godfather goes. “It was only business.”


I realize I’ve just painted a pretty grim picture as far as hopes for salvaging American democracy go. That said, the situation is not hopeless. In this essay my aim was simply to describe how the election industry works. In a piece to follow I’ll dive into what we might do about it if we care about democracy.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”

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