The Democratic party’s base seems increasingly receptive to the idea that a change to its current leadership is in order. A New York Times poll earlier this month showed that around two thirds of likely Democratic voters do not want President Biden to seek a second term, while another from CNN put the figure at around 75%. More broadly, support for the party has been waning for some time as well, as FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of generic congressional ballot polling has shown Democrats consistently behind Republicans since December of last year.

Concern for this is making its way through mainstream media, but while the observation is clear, prescriptions on how to respond are problematic. Last week, The Hill published an opinion piece by Glen C. Altschuler calling for a new generation to take over from the current cast of elderly Democratic leaders, arguing that the main issue is that the President, House Speaker and Senate Majority leader are all in their 70s or 80s. Mark Leibovich made a similar argument about Biden in The Atlantic. In some cases this may indeed be what needs to be addressed – Senator Dianne Feinstein’s manifest senility, for instance, has been documented and commented on publicly for years now – but the Democratic Party being out of touch and largely incapable of accomplishing its stated agenda is not a question of age.

There is an unfortunate continuity from Obama’s presidency – whom no one would accuse of being too old for the job – to Biden’s, in that both ignored or deprioritized bedrock Democratic policies, and the current dissatisfaction with the party is the result of that longer trend. Obama promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act “first thing” in a speech to Planned Parenthood as a candidate, but within 3 months as president he was publicly backpedaling from that position.

He promised to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and picket with workers in labor disputes, but when it came time to walk the walk with striking teachers in Wisconsin, he left them at the mercy of Governor Scott Walker’s draconian policies.

Biden’s policy agenda overall has failed to take off, but to zero in on one issue in particular: candidate Biden pledged $2 trillion over 4 years for zero-emissions vehicles and to put us on track to 100% clean electricity by 2035 – that plan has long since been scrapped, and what’s proposed now is a $2.3 billion investment in infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events.

That’s nearly a thousandfold reduction in scope for an issue the president just recently called an “existential threat.”

What I’ve highlighted here is true for issues across the Democratic Party’s platform whenever they’ve held power over the last two decades, from gun control to healthcare policy to financial reform. Age can’t possibly be the main issue with the Biden presidency or this particular Congress, because this problem is longstanding: the story of modern Democratic leadership is one of consistently avoiding the issues its base wants addressed despite impassioned promises to the contrary.

We Democratic faithful have become Charlie Brown running up to kick the football, as our Lucy leadership promises us that this time, they won’t move it at the last second.

The corruption right under our noses

So why is our leadership so consistently out of step with its stated goals and what is to be done? The answer is as obvious as it is overlooked: put simply, money talks and everybody listens. Through a series of Supreme Court decisions (starting with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and culminating in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision in 2014), the United States has gradually erected a system of lobbying and political spending that essentially amounts to legalized bribery, and the vast majority of political leaders are on the take regardless of party affiliation.

Our current president is no exception: Biden’s largest donor to his presidential campaign was the privately held financial services firm Bloomberg LP (over $93 million), and during his time in Congress he was so wedded to that industry’s interests that he was dubbed “the Senator from MBNA” (another financial services firm).

Between his campaign and congressional races, Democrats took over $320 million from dark money groups (which bundle unlimited amounts of untraceable donations for candidates) over the course of the 2020 election cycle. Obama played the game as well, making his turn towards the donor class as a candidate in 2008 when he reversed course on public financing of his campaign, and doubling down in 2012 for his re-election when he legally structured his campaign as a nonprofit, loosening disclosure requirements and allowing anonymous funds to flow in freely.

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee summed it up best at the time: “No big bank or corporation will donate million-dollar checks to OFA [Obama For America, the 2012 campaign nonprofit] without the expectation that it will impact which issues they engage on, and that’s very troubling.” While many office-holders would bristle at Green’s pay-to-play characterizations of campaign finance, his concerns are well-founded.

A landmark study from Princeton University in 2014 that compared donors’ political preferences to voters’ over three decades found that “when the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” When the energy, pharmaceutical, investment, and insurance lobbies each spend more than nine figures on lobbying in a single year – to both parties and the White House – the average voter doesn’t stand a chance.

New boss, same as the old boss

So, there we have it: Charlie Brown has a “near-zero, statistically non-significant” ability to convince Lucy not to pull the football away because she’s been paid by a third party to do just that.

With formalized corruption at the heart of our political dysfunction, simply swapping older faces for younger ones is not a likely solution unless there’s something substantively different about the new generation. Altschuler’s piece in The Hill names a number of Democratic leaders who should take the reins, including well-known figures like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. A recent piece in Business Insider even went so far as to call these two “heirs apparent” to Biden, since they both work in his administration. Given the problematic influences in the system, what’s needed are leaders who will point out the corruption and stand against it – neither Buttigieg nor Harris fit the bill.

Buttigieg embraced dark money during his presidential campaign and has even courted it thereafter through his Win The Era Action Fund nonprofit.

Despite promises to reveal its donors, no public disclosure has been made about the $2.1 million raised so far. Buttigieg has stepped away from leading the nonprofit since becoming head of the Department of Transportation and has pledged not to participate in any matter involving WTEAF, but doubts still linger about whether he is coordinating with its donors, as they technically don’t fall under the purview of his ethics pledge. As for Kamala Harris, her 2020 bid for the presidency is similarly telling: Harris initially refused the help of super PACs, but eventually availed herself of their vast untraceable resources in Iowa to buy media as a last-ditch effort to save her failing campaign.

Bearing in mind the findings from the Princeton study, these realities about Harris’ and Buttigieg’s campaigns cannot be explained away as necessary evils or mere peccadillos in the grand scheme of things.

If they (or the many other mainstream Democrats with similar conflicts of interest) are the next generation, then we will see them fail where Biden and Obama have, and for the same reasons.

How to proceed

It does not have to be this way, and it is fortunate that there are politicians who do buck this system. Bernie Sanders gave the mainstream of the party a run for its dark money with presidential campaigns driven by people-power and transparent, individual donations, and his efforts benefitted from the groundwork laid by fellow Vermonter Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004, who pioneered the technique of tapping small donations from supporters over the internet.

Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman ran and won their seats in Congress with support from Justice Democrats, a PAC run on small-dollar donations that prioritizes rejecting dark money when choosing candidates to endorse.

Whatever one may think about their policies, Sanders, Bowman, and AOC have not about-faced from their campaign promises once in office. They ran as anti-establishment progressives and have stuck to their guns because the only promises they had to keep were to their voting constituents, not deep-pocketed donors.

The Democratic base needs to single out campaign finance as a major determining factor in selecting its leaders. Only then will we get away from naively measuring candidates by how nice their promises sound, and start deciding rationally whether they really will act on those promises.