One of the factors that serves to limit public enthusiasm for politics is the general belief that money rules all. Money matters in our politics, but not as much as most people think. More surprisingly, money matters less now than it ever has in the history of our political system. Here’s an explanation from the book:
Imagine a place in which only wealthy people can vote. The threshold for political influence at any level is a minimal amount of property ownership. Women are not allowed to participate at all, regardless of wealth. Only people of the correct race, family heritage, and religious associations are granted any voice.
Add in the legal protection of slaveholder’s rights, and that is the system our Founders constructed. The American Republic was originally built to protect the liberty of wealthy white males. When you place the power of the wealthy in a historical context, the steady decline of their relative influence starts to become clearer.
America didn’t grant voting rights to all white men until the 1820s. We didn’t end slavery until the 1860s. Women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1919. Blacks and Hispanics were routinely blocked from the political system until the 1970s and still have their influence systematically blunted today.
There were no federal campaign-finance laws of any kind until the Tillman Act in 1907. Until the early 20th century, Senate seats were more or less openly purchased with payments to the state legislators who selected Senators. That act required no disclosures and included no enforcement mechanism, accomplishing precisely nothing. There were no enforceable federal laws limiting campaign contributions until 1972. Ambassadorships to attractive, peaceful locations are still sold to the highest bidder, as they always have been.
There are few explicit, enforceable legal checks on the political influence of money. Yet buying a political outcome in our system is harder now than it has ever been. It costs more; it requires more effort, energy, and coordination; and more attempts fail than succeed. The decline in the relative power of money in our politics is almost entirely a product of the large devolutionary trends outlined earlier, rather than the result of any legislative effort.
True, well-funded special interests are still more powerful than they should be. Reducing the disproportionate influence of money on our politics should be a priority. However, money is not our central political problem. Finding an intelligent way forward starts with a realistic assessment of the situation.
The most powerful force in our politics is the time, energy, and attention of people willing to get off their couch and participate personally in the process. It takes enormous sums of money to counter the influence of a few well-organized and connected activists.
If it seems like public officials are spending more time and energy than ever raising money, that’s because they are. By a strange twist, our weak campaign-finance laws are to blame for this situation. Our complicated, confusing, and often contradictory mess of regulations has made it extremely difficult to run for office. It has also provided a surprising advantage for wealthy donors.
Thirty years ago, a candidate could fund a campaign with an appeal to one or two donors. As a result, he might be very closely aligned with that one interest, but he spent very little time soliciting money. Now a candidate still needs wealthy donors, but she has to find dozens or even hundreds of them in order to survive. Instead of forging an appeal to a few donors with whom she is already aligned on policy, the candidate must build an agenda that will appeal to wealthy donors as a class. Our funding limits have acted like a union for the wealthy, allowing them to act together in ways that would have been impossible without those limits.
At the same time, the pressure to find donors has increased the power of third-party interest groups and PACs that seek to influence campaigns without being specifically tied to a candidate. A Congressional candidate has only so many hours of the day to spend raising money. These organizations have gained unnecessary influence as caps on campaign contributions have raised the pressure to find cash. They are also competing with candidates for funds.
In short, our approach to campaign-finance law has been an unmitigated disaster. Building a more intelligent system starts with a closer look at the behavior we hope to limit. We want our elected officials to make policy decisions based on a combination of their constituents’ input and their own well-considered evaluations of the public and national interest. Limits on campaign contributions are meant to halt the wealthy from engaging in a sort of legalized bribery that would subvert the public interest in favor of their own.
Not every campaign contribution is bribery. Campaign contributions are in fact one of the ways that we measure a potential candidate’s credibility and qualifications. It takes money to run for office. Communicating with voters costs money. Driving from campaign site to campaign site costs money. Taking money out of politics would require us to take most of the communication, visibility, and accountability out of politics.
Perhaps the simplest, most effective means to limit the power of organized bribery to subvert the public interest is to build our campaign-finance system on bedrock of full disclosure. Instead of limiting contributions by amount, we should impose authentic transparency.