Pete Buttigieg
Credit: NBC News/YouTube Screen Capture

The most interesting event in the sixth Democratic primary debate on Thursday was a tiff between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg over fundraisers for high-dollar donors. For those who aren’t already aware of the controversy, here’s a bit of background courtesy of Ella Nilsen at Vox:

The biggest on-stage fight of Thursday’s Democratic debate, between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — indeed, one of the biggest fights we’ve seen come out of any of the debates — was about wine caves.

Or rather, it was a fight about high-dollar fundraisers, political access, and who gets to have it.

A disagreement that has been simmering for weeks between the progressive Massachusetts senator and the more moderate mayor erupted during the PBS NewsHour/Politico debate, when Warren brought up Buttigieg’s recent high-dollar fundraiser at the Hall Rutherford wine caves in Napa Valley. The vineyard’s billionaire owners, Craig and Kathryn Hall, recently hosted the pooled-press fundraiser for Buttigieg, per a report from the Associated Press’s Brian Slodysko.

Said wine caves recently went viral when Recode reporter Teddy Schleifer tweeted out photos of the Buttigieg event, showcasing the glittering chandelier made out of 1,500 Swarovski crystals. And, as Slodysko recently reported, Hall Rutherford’s wine caves produce bottles of cabernet sauvignon that go for as much as $900.

Both the Warren and Sanders campaigns have been making an example of the wine cave fundraiser as part of a broader argument about the corruption of big dollar fundraisers. Progressives argue that these sorts of events are inherently corrupting: donors who attend them often expect special favors, and the public perceives democracy to be corrupted as a result. On the other side of the coin, both Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have high-dollar bundlers and hold expensive top-dollar fundraisers.

Defenders of this practice argue as Obama adviser David Axelrod did in post-debate interviews that these are harmless activities, and that politicians can hold these sorts of fundraisers without being corrupted by them. The problem is that evidence shows this is not the case:

Corporate executives and lobbyists can bundle maximum contributions of $2,800 to candidates that don’t disavow their help, quickly raising at least tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars during a primary, often from colleagues whose industries spend millions of dollars on lobbying the office the candidate is seeking.

For candidates that receive a lot of wealthy-donor support, a backer might respond, “Do high-dollar bundlers really get improper influence over legislation and public policy from these early contributions?”

The answer is clearly yes, according to experts in the money-in-politics field. Dozens of academic studies published over the past ten years establish the correlation of politicians’ fundraising abilities and special-interest influence over policy. Additionally, the firsthand testimony of former (or currentelected officialslobbyistswatchdogs, and consultants attests to the causation of legalized bribery

Earlier this year, Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 45% of senior congressional staff admit to changing their mind about a policy after meeting with a contributor. Stokes also drew attention, from her research in climate policymaking, to the findings of a 2015 study that senior policy makers were three-to-four times more likely to meet with a campaign contributor.

But let’s say for the sake of (silly) argument that Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden somehow aren’t improperly influenced  by big-dollar dinners–that they aren’t afraid to take stronger policy positions, don’t deliver ambassadorships to attendees, and don’t grant more meetings to lobbyists connected to contributors. A healthcare company executive named Bill Wehrle attended the infamous Buttigieg wine cave fundraiser in Napa Valley for max donors, and claims there was nothing wrong with it at all: just regular non-millionaires asking normal questions.

The problem is that, as Chris Hayes documents extensively in his book Twilight of the Elites, even when there is no overt quid-pro-quo corruption, the social hobnobbing of wealthy individuals with mostly wealthy legislators blinds policymakers to the realities faced by normal people in the economy, and harmfully skews their concerns toward those of the ultra-privileged. For instance, the top 1% are far more concerned about deficits than normal people are–despite the overwhelming evidence showing that deficits are not remotely as problematic as even most center-left politicians seem to believe. Until very recently, even major Democratic politicians (and fictional Democratic presidents on TV) seemed to believe that “entitlement reform” (i.e., slashing Social Security and Medicare) was an important part of a healthy economic policy prescription, and sought to achieve it via so-called “Grand Bargains” with Republicans. This was not dictated by actual evidence, and definitely not by the actual policy preferences of normal people, but rather by the obsessions of wealthy donors wrongly concerned about correlations between deficits, interest rates and inflation and their potential impacts on bloated stock portfolios.

The reality is that $2800 donors like Mr. Wehrle should not, in fact, have any more opportunity to have personal conversations and ask burning policy questions of presidential candidates than anyone else. Giving $2800 to a presidential candidate should not guarantee you access to a powerful legislator under any circumstances, much less under the swanky lights of a 1,500 Swarovski crystal chandelier. When $10 donors get a quick handshake from behind a rally barricade but $2,800 donors get to communicate their pressing concerns, the result is that the candidate’s worldview is strongly colored by the latter and not the former. It’s just human nature. And that’s before those donors start coming back round to ask for personal and policy favors later, and the candidate has to decide just how much to grant them to keep them happy.

And so what, you might ask? So what if some well-heeled socialite gets a Caribbean ambassadorship, or some special interest gets a small tax carveout? So what, if that’s what it takes to defeat Trump?

There are two answers to that. First, as much as Trump’s primary appeal to his base voters was racism, sexism and intentional cruelty, it is undeniable that the past 30 years of policy being tilted ever further to corporations and the wealthy provided an avenue for a rich grifter who claimed to be uncorruptible (how laughable the reality may be) to run against the supposed “swamp” of Washington, DC. The perception of corruption alone works to the benefit of conservative populists. Second, it’s not at all clear that presidential candidates actually need to take this sort of money–or at least, not with these sorts of preconditions. American presidential campaigns are the most visible and highest funded in the entire world, and there is increasing evidence that the marginal utility of campaign spending decreases after certain amounts have already been spent. In other words, once you’ve spent $700 million on a presidential election, it’s not at all clear that getting another $200 million actually does that much to win votes.

So if there are potential donors out there who will give $2800 if they can get invited to an intimate gathering but would otherwise refuse, it’s best to simply refuse them. It is inherently corrupting for people with $2800 to drop on a presidential campaign to get any closer access to a candidate than anyone else. Our democracy suffers as result, and giving them that access doesn’t help dislodge Trump. It does the opposite.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.