Dave Gilson

Dave Gilson

Senior editor

Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones' San Francisco (not Frisco) office. Reach him at dgilson@motherjones.com. Follow him on Twitter or read more of his stories.

Get my RSS |

Even before presidential candidates started lining up billionaires to kick-start their campaigns, it was clear that the 2016 election could be the biggest big-money election yet. This chart from the political data shop Crowdpac illustrates where we may be headed: Between 1980 and 2012, the share of federal campaign contributions coming from the very, very biggest political spenders—the top 0.01 percent of donors—nearly tripled:

In other words, a small handful of Americans* control more than 40 percent of election contributions. Notably, between 2010 and 2012, the total share of giving by these donors jumped more than 10 percentage points. That shift is likely the direct result of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which struck down decades of fundraising limits and kicked off the super-PAC era. And this data only includes publicly disclosed donations, not dark money, which almost certainly means that the megadonors' actual share of total political spending is even higher.

It's pretty fair to assume that most of these top donors are also sitting at the top of the income pyramid. Out of curiosity, I compared the share of campaign cash given by elite donors alongside the increasing share of income controlled by the people who make up the top 0.01 percent—the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The trend lines aren't an exact match, but they're close enough to show how top donors' political clout has increased along with top earners' growing slice of the national income. Again, note the bump around 2010 and 2011, when the Citizens United era opened just as the superwealthy were starting to recover from the recession—a rebound that has left out most Americans.


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a few hundred people control 40 percent of election contributions, based on my own calculations. According to Crowdpac, the number is around 25,000.

If you've seen any photos of the current California drought, you've probably seen some variation on these striking before-and-after images of this bridge near Lake Oroville:

California Department of Water Resources

Seeing those images popping up everywhere has been a little weird for me since that bridge used to be named after my grandfather. 

My grandfather, B. Abbott Goldberg, was the deputy director of California's Department of Water Resources from 1961 to 1966. He was one of the legal architects of Gov. Pat Brown's California Water Project, the massive, contentious undertaking that built the infrastructure that currently supplies 25 million people and 1 million acres of farmland. He argued and won two Supreme Court cases, the details of which are mind-numbingly arcane. But they were essential to realizing Brown's vision for mastering the natural resource that he saw as essential to the state's survival.

Winning the West's water, my grandfather explained in a University of California oral history project, was almost a religious mission. His colleagues, he said, "had come up and they had transmitted to me, certainly, the tradition of the Old West, that water is the limiting resource and that by bringing water to the thirsty land, you were in effect doing the Lord's work and that there was nothing more important for the people of California than providing an adequate water supply."

He was proud of his work, whose effectiveness was evident in Californians' unquestioning expectation of plentiful, cheap water. When the state went through the big drought of 1976-77, he noted, "There wasn't a murmur about a shortage of domestic water in Southern California…I didn't find anybody beating the doors down to thank us for what had been done. The fact that it took some forty years to achieve it was just forgotten." Later in his life, he read Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's critique of the growth-at-all-costs mentality embodied in the Water Project. He wasn't a fan.

Not that he couldn't see the other side. In his oral history interview, conducted in 1979, my grandfather admitted to some conflicted views about California's relationship with water. Sounding like a good Northern Californian, he mused, "Someplace along the line, the idea began to dawn on me that really Southern California was an environment essentially hostile to human occupation…[B]ut what are you going to do about the millions of people already down there?" And: "I do remember saying to someone that really, the only solution to the water problem was birth control."

He even indulged the what-if question that every thinking Californian asks once they've been here long enough: "I sometimes wonder, maybe it would have been better to let California dry up and blow away, and keep it the way we used to know it."

Which brings us back to the bridge, another symbol of Californians' ambition and ambivalence. After the state named it after my grandfather in the late '60s, local lawmakers objected, insisting it be renamed the Enterprise Bridge, after a town of the same name that had been inundated by Oroville Dam—one of the signature features of the California Water Project.

Tue Mar. 18, 2008 8:22 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 18, 2008 5:50 PM EST
Thu Jan. 24, 2008 1:39 PM EST
Tue Jan. 22, 2008 1:01 AM EST
Fri Jan. 4, 2008 9:27 PM EST
Fri Dec. 21, 2007 2:58 PM EST
Thu Dec. 20, 2007 5:43 PM EST
Wed Dec. 19, 2007 5:35 PM EST
Thu Dec. 13, 2007 4:22 PM EST
Thu Dec. 6, 2007 8:47 PM EST
Wed Dec. 5, 2007 7:32 PM EST
Tue Dec. 4, 2007 7:10 PM EST
Mon Dec. 3, 2007 1:35 PM EST
Fri Nov. 30, 2007 8:46 PM EST
Wed Nov. 28, 2007 7:29 PM EST
Wed Nov. 28, 2007 12:53 PM EST
Mon Nov. 26, 2007 8:57 PM EST
Tue Nov. 20, 2007 4:06 PM EST
Thu Nov. 1, 2007 5:47 PM EDT
Thu Oct. 18, 2007 6:37 PM EDT
Thu Oct. 18, 2007 6:34 PM EDT
Thu Oct. 18, 2007 6:18 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 16, 2007 6:26 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 16, 2007 6:24 PM EDT
Thu Jul. 5, 2007 7:18 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 2, 2007 6:58 PM EDT
Tue Jun. 26, 2007 3:49 PM EDT
Tue Jun. 26, 2007 1:43 PM EDT
Tue Jun. 26, 2007 1:34 AM EDT
Fri Jun. 22, 2007 6:20 PM EDT
Thu Jun. 21, 2007 9:14 PM EDT
Fri Jun. 8, 2007 4:24 PM EDT
Thu Jun. 7, 2007 1:28 PM EDT
Tue Jun. 5, 2007 5:24 PM EDT
Tue May. 29, 2007 9:22 PM EDT
Wed May. 23, 2007 1:29 PM EDT
Wed May. 16, 2007 4:19 PM EDT