The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform

To Citizens United v FEC, add McCutcheon v FEC

By Shawn Gude

This month's  Supreme Court ruling — in which the justices struck down a cap on the total contributions an individual can make in an election cycle — provoked a paroxysm in the campaign finance reform community, reminiscent of the Citizens United backlash.

McCutcheon, Demos warned, “will do incalculable harm to our democracy.” The Supreme Court “might as well have tied a big bow around Congress and deliver[ed] it to the 1%” the Sunlight Foundation charged. And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders attacked the Supreme Court for “paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

But have we really entered a new epoch in which the rich will dominate the political process as ordinary citizens look on dejectedly? Or is the problem of money in politics much deeper, more a product of an inequitable economic system called capitalism than a court ruling called McCutcheon?

Four years ago, as campaign finance reformers tend to tell it, there was a tectonic shift in our politics. The world before Citizens United, if imperfect, contained a semblance of political equality; the new era contains no such thing. Once-insentient corporations are now afforded the rights of citizens, Super-PACs proliferate, the billionaire Koch brothers run rampant. Democracy has been hollowed out, and the only way to restore it is to disclose donations or set up a system of robust public financing, or, more ambitiously, pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.

And that was before McCutcheon. Now individuals, previously proscribed from giving more than $123,200 to federal candidates, parties and PACs in an election cycle, can contribute more than $3.5 million. According to a Demos estimate, that means elite donors will pump an extra $1 billion into the political process through the 2020 election cycle. (The $2,600 limit on individual contributions to federal candidates remains intact.)

The influence of the rich on the political process is indeed troubling. If the inequality produced in our economic system inexorably and relentlessly assaults political equality, the degree of political inequality is still salient.

One way of quantifying influence is to look at the composition of political contributions. In the United States, the “political 1% of the 1%,” in the words of the Sunlight Foundation, “increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States.” Last election, the redoubtable group accounted for 28 percent of all disclosed political donations, while representing just 1/100th of the population. The operative word, though, is disclosed. Increasingly, opacity is the rule. 501(c)(4)s, which do not have to reveal their donors, spent just over $1 million in the 2006 election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That figure jumped to more than $256 million in 2012, and in February the organization reported “the amount of spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors is 300 times higher than at this point in the 2012 cycle.” The present balance of power and resources, so tilted toward the wealthy, has produced a political system that acts on the preferences of the poor only when they happen to intersect with the preferences of the rich.

Disclosure and public financing and a constitutional amendment would stanch democracy’s hemorrhage and amplify the vox populi. But campaign finance groups are still quixotic in their reformism, still unaware of their strategy’s inherent limitations. To take one exemplar: Demos says it wants “political equality, accountable government, and fair representation for all regardless of wealth are served.” But this is impossible. Class societies, marked by wide variations in wealth and power, provide a rotten base for political democracy.

That capitalism cohabits with democracy is unquestionably true; indeed, the irony is that modern democracy (what the democratic theorist Robert Dahl called polyarchy, to distinguish ideal democracy from actually existing democracy) has only taken root in capitalist countries. This counts for something. No avowedly socialist country achieved what 19th century advocates thought was a natural pairing. State socialist regimes suppressed political democracy instead of deepening it. But if it was an ally and promoter in its earlier stages, capitalism is now one of democracy’s chief enemies. The once hospitable ground is increasingly arid; advanced capitalism can sustain democratic life, but not without simultaneously stunting its development.

Capitalism weakens democracy in two main ways. First, its maldistribution of wealth makes a mockery of “one person, one vote.” Some people have more resources at their disposal to influence the political process than others. Second, capitalism gives a small sliver of the population control over the society’s principal economic decisions — where to produce, where to invest, etc. This erodes both worker and citizen sovereignty.

Well-crafted campaign finance laws do a decent job of shrinking disparities in overt political influence, but they don’t address subtler forms of influence. The wealthy, for instance can set up think tanks (the Koch brothers have the Cato Institute). The think tank’s scholars are then quoted in media outlets and legitimated as experts, thus shaping the contours of political discourse. Over the past few decades, conservatives have been enormously successful in shifting the political center to the right, not least because of their constellation of think tanks. One could object that unions do the same thing. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, receives a chunk of its funding from organized labor. But the difference is that the labor movement, for all its weaknesses, represents a broader swath of the population. Its coffers are filled with money from millions of workers, not a billionaire or two. (One estimate had one Koch brother equaling the influence of 515,000 union members.)

Of course, it would be absurd and blatantly unconstitutional to ban rich people from founding think tanks. But this is the terrain on which reformers are operating. Proponents of a regulated capitalism wish to harness that economic system’s enormous productive powers for beneficent, humane ends. But just as the maladies capitalism creates — class privilege, power disparities, inequality — forestall economic justice, so too do they prevent the advancement of political justice: democratic self-governance. The crusading reformer inevitably bumps up against the reality of advanced capitalism, or the reality of free speech rights.

So if stamping out big money’s influence is more than rhetorical cant, if it’s an actual aspiration, campaign finance advocates are setting themselves up for disappointment, or more likely, illusory victories. They implore the Court to decouple economic and political power by holding that money is not speech, when capitalism’s inviolate laws will always make it so. They urge legislative action to “get money out of politics.” But under capitalism, the twain shall always meet.

The great error is thinking political and economic equality are separable, that we can keep democratic equality and capitalist inequality in different quarters and that they’ll coexist amicably. The fact is, we can retain a modicum of democracy without altering the gears of our economic system. We could even overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon. But we won’t be able to achieve political equality, that precondition for democracy’s realization, without going beyond campaign finance laws. For that, we must go beyond capitalism.

Shawn_Gude.jpgShawn Gude is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @shawngude.




Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.


Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.


DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.