Months before a single primary vote is cast, the lineup is set for this Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate. We will watch a group of predominantly white and male candidates take to the stage. It will be a far cry from the once historically diverse field with a record number of women.
Fundraising challenges are not uncommon for women seeking political office. Although women candidates overall raise comparable amounts of political contributions as men, they typically do so in smaller increments, meaning that they must work harder to reach the same goal. Black women face particular barriers to fundraising, with one study reporting that black women running as U.S. House general election candidates in 2018 raised half as much as white women candidates that year.
Barriers to reflective representation keep our political system in a protracted state of disequilibrium—dominated by the interests of the few over the many. But it’s not just women candidates and candidates of color who are disadvantaged by a political system that is skewed toward the rich. Gender and racial economic disparities shape the fundamental facts of our democracy, who has power and voice in our political process.
Economic power, after all, is political power. The deep and pervasive importance of money in the American political system generates twin challenges for women and people of color. First, it means that these candidates have less access to the financial resources they need to be competitive on the electoral playing field. Second, it means that women and people of color are less able to influence the political outcomes that govern well-being around the country.
Research has found that women and men contribute to candidates and campaigns at similar rates. But women’s contributions are, on average, smaller than men’s, comprising 43 percent of all dollars given to presidential candidates this cycle. In a political system where campaign cash is a primary marker of candidate viability, this means that women don’t have equal opportunities to create candidate buzz and shape dominant— and perhaps self-fulfilling—narratives about candidates’ “electability.”
Gender differences in campaign spending reflect larger inequities, not individual choices. They also counter the more democratic forms of political engagement that women engage in at higher rates. Women are a majority of voters, turning out at rates 3 to 4 percent higher than men. They are fueling political activism—from black women-led social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too to the anti-Trump “resistance.” And they are mobilized, thanks to longstanding year-round organizing and new efforts designed to increase turnout among women of color, a critical but often underinvested-in Democratic constituency.
The racialized and gendered disparities that plague our economic system corrupt the equitable distribution of political power. Women and people of color—and especially those at the intersection of those two identities—face an uphill battle in our economy. Not only are they paid less—black and Latina women are paid approximately 61 cents and 53 cents to every dollar a white man earns, respectively—but they are also deeply vulnerable to economic shocks because of gaping racial and gender wealth gaps.
These economic inequalities are reinforced by explicit policy choices in our laws and tax code. Recent research argues that the tax code privileges the already wealthy, discourages women from working, and offers fewer tax advantages to service-sector businesses, where women entrepreneurs dominate. On the flip side, tax revenues are not funding many of the issues that women and people of color have long called out as important to them: child care, universal healthcare, and paid family leave—basic building blocks of a safe and secure life.
One practical effect of these economic disparities is that women and people of color have fewer resources to spend on politics. This matters because so-called “women’s issues” are much more likely to be in the political mix when women are more engaged. When women feel financially and physically secure, we all reap the rewards.
It’s a dynamic that is playing out in real time in the Democratic primary. According to a recent analysis, Senators Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar—who have taken bold positions on child care, paid family leave, and reproductive rights—have donor bases that were largely comprised of women. Gillibrand, who made gender equity central to the campaign she suspended in August, also had a majority woman donor base.
Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden have higher levels of male donor support. To what degree is their perceived “electability” a manifestation of racial and gendered economic disparities that equip white men to write bigger checks? And to what extent is white men’s disproportionate political giving muting more democratic forms of political expression and engagement like organizing and voter mobilization? We can’t know for sure. But what’s clear is that money can buy vast political advantages, mostly for men.
Today’s rigged economic system, from pay disparities to inequalities in the tax code, means that women can reach deep into their pocketbooks but not see the changes they seek. We’ll be listening for the candidates’ positions on issues that are important to women at Thursday’s debate.
But winning for women requires something more: a commitment to changing the economic rules that restrict the political voices of the vast majority of Americans. It’s only when everyone can equally influence political outcomes that we’ll see the policy changes we need.
Julie Kohler is a Fellow in Residence at the National Women’s Law Center and and serves as a senior adviser at the Democracy Alliance. Rakeen Mabud is the Director of Research and Strategy at TIME’S UP.