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.




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