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.

Showing 13 reactions

commented 2014-04-24 08:42:56 -0400 · Flag
For a Marxist you are very intolerant. If you can’t tolerate one pessimist how can you seek to liberate the whole world? Are you a real proletariat, or just a poser? Maybe you want to be in the Vanguard of the Proletariat as in Marxist/Leninist. I don’t believe for one moment you are a real proletarian. One little disagreement over philosophy and you want to dump another misguided human over the side of the ship. Tut, tut. I understand that capitalism is unfree, but all other systems operating in reality are unfree as well. Many biologist don’t even believe humans have free will. We are simply products of our genes and environment. Not many Marxist in the natural scientists, but there are many atheists. Evolution and natural selection which drives all biological development has no bias towards freedom, progress or justice. We as part of the animal kingdom just adopt to our environments. What is your Marxist definition of “Freedom”? I like you. Why don’t you like me?
commented 2014-04-23 22:06:32 -0400 · Flag
You don’t have to be an optimist. You just have to understand that capitalism is an un-freedom and that people are better off free than unfree. But if you don’t believe in the possibility of human freedom, and think that people necessarily “suck” in all contexts and circumstances, then yes, please go away.
commented 2014-04-23 18:08:57 -0400 · Flag
Because I believe socialism is a beautiful vision. It is like Christianity. It belongs in a book with pressed flowers and verse. The world we live in is a jungle. I actually lived in a jungle. I met dedicated communists, and they tried to kill me. I did not consider myself a capitalist. I was right in there with the proletariat breaking bread with the working class. One nation’s proletariat trying to kill another nation’s proletariat. I know I am agitating here a little bit. If you have to be an optimist to be a socialist then I probably should just go away. The human soul is a dark thing brimming over with fear, pain and hatred. Neither Marx nor Jesus is going to fix that defect in human nature. Ronald Reagan was a famous optimist. He believed in perfect markets.
commented 2014-04-23 12:44:17 -0400 · Flag
This is a misunderstanding of what Marx said. To the degree he spoke of inevitable victory it was for purposes of political agitation. And if you’re a cynic then why are you commenting on a socialist site?
commented 2014-04-23 11:42:26 -0400 · Flag
Before capitalism the ruling elite was nasty, evil and brutish. During capitalism’s domination of the world economy the elites are nasty, brutish, and evil. I don’t know what transformation is coming, but I would bet it will be nasty, brutish and evil. In that sense I am cynical. I don’t know that much about Marx, but I seem to remember that he said capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction and socialism/communism is inevitable. Why bother with a class struggle when heaven is coming to earth anyway. Not in my life time or yours, of course. I don’t expect the Rapture or the end of capitalism in my life time unless it is an atomic rapture.
commented 2014-04-23 09:55:50 -0400 · Flag
Cynicism doesn’t help matters. Oh, and I’m a worker too. It’s not a badge of pride.
commented 2014-04-22 20:56:48 -0400 · Flag
You know I was actually a worker for 20 years until I got hurt and had to retire on disability. Being a worker is not all that great. I never saw the class struggle when I was a worker. I just saw a bunch of people who bought into the American wet dream 100%. All they wanted was a big SUV, and a home in the suburbs. Only those who are not in the working class have any sympathy for the workers. The working class in America will not even admit they belong to the working class. Everyone not on welfare believes they are part of the middle class. The class struggle here is to stay out of the working class. Well, I have to go look into my crystal ball, so I can see how my stocks are going to do this year. The class struggle will have to wait for my capital gains.
commented 2014-04-22 14:13:20 -0400 · Flag
To the best of my knowledge Sanders doesn’t get any money from big capitalists (which ones would be fool enough to fund him?). If you’re not happy with your union, then that’s what union reform efforts like the Labor Notes network are for. Of course the ruling class won’t give up its hold on power willingly. That’s why it’s called a class STRUGGLE. As to how long it will take to finally win — I don’t own a crystal ball.
commented 2014-04-21 18:40:18 -0400 · Flag
Jason When you say “protracted struggle” how protracted and how much of a struggle? There is no way in hell the ruling elite is going to give up their hold on power. Power and wealth are becoming more concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Perhaps I need to go to a 12 step program because I still vote even though it is probably proof of insanity. I know Bernie Sanders is a US senator, but he must get money from some big donors. If someone gives a politician a large check they want something besides good government. Maybe the dog catcher of Slippery Rock, New Mexico can get elected with 25 dollar contributions but he/she would be the only one. I can’t think of many non-capitalist interests in the USA. US labor unions are capitalist interests since they may squabble with their bosses, but their interests are the same in that they want the unionized industry to prosper. The problem begins when the company moves to China and leaves the union workers high and dry. The only union that was really anti-capitalist was the IWW and we know what happened to them. Yes, you can buy an IWW card for about 100 bucks and pretend to be a bindle stiff.
commented 2014-04-21 16:19:05 -0400 · Flag
Different DSA members will give you different answers as to how to vote. As a rule I don’t vote for politicians taking money from corporations or finance capital. There are specific Democrats who run on pro-worker platforms and don’t take cash from capitalist interests. Those I can support. Otherwise I vote third-party or don’t vote.

Of course, if you’re a Marxist (like moi) any politician who isn’t for the overthrow of capitalism is a lesser evil. Even Ralph Nader was a lesser evil.

If “evolutionary socialism” means a belief that one reform will be one, then another, then another, then eventually voila, we have socialism, then I don’t think there’s anyone in DSA who believes that. I certainly don’t. Anything we win — be it a substantial economic reform or the radical transformation of the state — will have to be won through protracted struggle.
commented 2014-04-20 21:03:27 -0400 · Flag
You denounce them, but do you still vote for them as the lessor two evils? I am not attacking the DSA since I am a dues paying member. Both major parties represent the ruling class. Isn’t it getting crowded in the ruling circles of power? Everyone is after the same dollar from the same sources. Nobody represents workers except the dying union movement in the USA. I was in a union for 20 years. I saw a steady stream of givebacks. I think things will have to get so bad that, like the Great Depression, the ruling class will have to make concessions or be overthrown. I hope evolutionary socialism can succeed, but that is not the way I would bet.
commented 2014-04-20 16:28:37 -0400 · Flag
The SWP is a tiny authoritarian sect and the CP is in its death throes. DSA isn’t a pressure group. We’re an activist organization that does public education about socialism and socialist politics. We’re very aware that mainstream Democrats represent the ruling class. We denounce them all the time.
commented 2014-04-17 12:33:53 -0400 · Flag
My comment is why can’t SWP and Communist Party USA get together on these issues and work together to fight back? I know DSA is a pressure group, but who is feeling the pressure? I feel the pressure because for the last 40 years of my adult life I have seen the hollowing out of industrial America, and both democrats and republicans have worked together to make this happen. Clinton did as much harm as Bush and Obama is helping to turn USA into a third world country for everyone making less than $200,000 a year.

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