Election Reflections (Part I): Is Corporate-Free Too Easy?

Election Reflections (Part I): Is Corporate-Free Too Easy?

By Shiva Mishek

In this recent election cycle, the Richmond Progressive Alliance used a simple question to decide whether we would endorse local candidates: would the candidate commit to running a corporate-donation-free campaign? This question has been the bedrock of our organization since its founding in 2004.

But is it too basic a boundary issue?

We have, after all, seen a surprising nationwide revival of left politics, particularly since the Bernie campaign in 2016. Public opinion of single payer healthcare is high. Police brutality is more widely acknowledged as horrifyingly commonplace. Public opinion of unions is the highest it’s been since 1965. Gone are the days when my parents warned me, “Don’t tell anyone at school we’re socialists.” 

So, have we outgrown “no corporate donations”? Is it not bold enough? Do we need stronger, more specific criteria to assess the electoral candidates we support?

It’s a fairly straightforward commitment for a candidate to make: I will not accept corporate donations when running for office. And the principle behind is straightforward, too: my allegiance is to the people, not corporate entities.

What does taking corporate donations mean, in practice? On a federal level, we see voting and policy-making behavior that, while not illegal, is certainly unethical and what I’d comfortably characterize as legalized corruption. Joe Manchin’s relationship to the coal industry is an obvious one.

Another telling example is the implosion of the cryptocurrency market FTX, due in part to bipartisan unwillingness to regulate the industry. The downfall of FTX has been accompanied by revelations of millions of dollars of dark money being poured into Republican and Democrat campaigns by FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and associates. In a recent Politico article, Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets describes, “The whole FTX fiasco is nothing but the latest example of how a particular firm, but really an industry, uses all the levers of the influence industry to basically hijack the agenda and put its narrow self-interest on the top and subordinating the public interest at the same time.”

I’m preaching to the choir here; corporate influence tramples the public good constantly in this country. But I don’t think corporate donations have to mean a direct quid pro quo between a candidate and a firm. A corporate donation doesn’t mean a company is directly buying favorable votes or feet dragging on policy. 

But it does tell us, the voters, something about the candidate in question. When a corporation examines the electoral playing field and decides to back a candidate, there’s a reason. Something in that candidate’s policies (or relationships, or beliefs) has signaled to that corporation that this person, if elected, will be good for their bottom line. It means the same thing as when you or I donate to a candidate: “I want this person to win. This candidate best represents my beliefs and interests.” 

And, as a progressive, I would argue that the interests of the poor, the working class, and the middle class are in direct conflict with the interests of corporations. So if a corporation decides to back a certain candidate, it tells us two things: that corporation likes that person for their profit margins. And so that person likely isn’t very good for us.

Before joining the campaign team for Eduardo Martinez and Jamin Pursell in the 2022 election cycle, I had my doubts about “no corporate donations” as a sufficient boundary issue. It’s such a simple commitment, and it certainly doesn’t capture everything I hope for from my elected officials.

But I learned very quickly that “no corporate donations” remains an effective litmus test. Can a candidate stay committed to this principle when arguably small amounts of money are dangled in his or her face? If a purportedly progressive or independent candidate can’t remain committed to this core value throughout a campaign season, I would argue that their ability to resist the significant pressure exerted by special interest groups, developers, corporations, the public, and so on, while in office will crumble very quickly. It’s a test of mettle, for one. And there are fewer candidates willing to make this commitment than I anticipated.

And, this way, there are no shortcuts. It’s either money, or a very strong movement, that will get and keep you elected. True left governance requires a mobilized base. Candidates need people to show up and knock doors, make calls, write materials. Our power is in our labor time, given freely. And with an eye always toward re-election— I can’t imagine a political figure who doesn’t always somewhat weigh that when facing a particularly contentious policy— it is easier to stick to one’s principles when they have the backing of a movement.

And so we can also weigh whether a progressive candidate can mobilize or engage with a base in their refusal of corporate donations. Elections cost a lot of money, even when done on a shoestring budget. The alternative to corporate donations are small dollar donations from individuals, who somehow overcome very valid electoral skepticism to support a candidate with their personal income. This requires some sort of base to build momentum, and I would argue that we should support candidates with a leftist base: to form policy, to hold electeds accountable, and to assure them that we’ll show up again at re-election time, if they keep their promises.

"No corporate donations" is a simple pledge that packs a massive punch. Not accepting the backing of any corporate interests is what separates true progressives from neoliberals and conservatives. And with this analytical tool, the RPA has been able to endorse some truly inspiring, principled, and clear-eyed candidates. I leave this election season with so much respect and gratitude to RPA founders, our current organization, and the candidates who commit to fight for the people, not corporations.