Claims about Corruption in the Case for Political Equality

February 5, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

One prominent scholar recently suggested on the election law listserv that the poor returns on Jeb Bush’s campaign spending tell us something about how unreliably money “talks” in elections.  Another prominent scholar replied, saying that this remark “completely missed the point” about the power of money in politics.

As the presidential election year moves along, it is natural for the debate to crank up over whether assumptions about money and politics, particularly in the era of Super PACs, have proven to be facile.  Among the various, conflicting views are those that surfaced in this list serv exchange.  The position dismissed as completely simplistic holds that money has been shown to be a weak factor in competitive elections.  The other, opposing view counters that the role of money in politics, while highly significant, has to be more discriminately analyzed, in more nuanced fashion.

The nuanced theory avoids some of the problems of overstatement but falls potentially into the risk of being both highly nuanced in its content and yet rhetorically bold in its presentation.  The argument takes various forms, but one is found in an article Rick Hasen wrote not too long ago in The Washington Post, entitled “Money Can’t Buy Jeb Bush the White House, but It Still Skews Politics.”  There, Hasen argues, that money is “key,” but when it is key, and how, all depends on the circumstances.  In high salience presidential campaigns its effects might be less powerful than in elections down the ballot, where interest is less intense and voters more weakly informed. Its effect, where it has one, is a “skew”, and it may be “subtler” in impact than reformers claim, but it is “equally pernicious” in advancing the interests of donor class.

There is a shift here to more careful claims about what money buys and when: that it counts for more in some races than in others; that it is not all that effective if the candidate is a “bad product”; that money’s effects are more of a “skew” than a power play; and that those effects are not always all that obvious unless you look closely.  But there is little change in the statement of campaign money’s impact: it is large, pernicious and pervasive, and it accounts for “the rise of a plutocratic class capturing private benefits for personal gain.”

Now this position may sound like the long-standing corruption argument now having to straddle the line between its empirical and moral foundations—having to concede after all this time the complexity of money’s effects while insisting that the corruption remains as bad as ever.  But Rick is not an anti-corruption theorist of the old school.  He is arguing for campaign finance regulation as an antidote to extreme political inequality, a position forcefully and skillfully laid out in his new book, Plutocrats United.

This argument based on considerations of political equality can gain force from a “skew” resulting from superior resources.  But it is not dependent on it. And it also does not require claims about the extent, significance or political bias of the “skew.”

To accept that we have a problem of gross and perhaps worsening political inequality requires no more than the view that if perfect equality outside the realm of “one person, one vote” is not achievable, there are extremes of inequality incompatible with fair terms of political participation that should be available to all citizens.  The coherence and power of this commitment to equality does not rise and fall on a showing of the projected consequences: for if it did, and if there were no such consequences, or if the consequences were marginal, then gross political inequality should not matter and no one should worry about a “plutocratic class.”  But, naturally, they do.

Yet the arguments about consequences go on, largely drawing on the ages’ old debate about the link between campaign cash and corruption or undue influence.  One reason is the practical one to be expected in a clash over policy.  Proponents of regulation often believe that they have to show corruption to prevail, and it has be corruption of the worst kind, with a Watergate-level scandal certain to erupt if nothing is done.  But they then run into the problem that when the claims outpace the evidence–when candidates with by far the most money fail, or well-funded interests don’t get what they want from legislators, or the surveys show that public confidence in government is not linked to campaign finance law–the argument-from-consequences takes a bad knock.

Readers of Rick Hasen’s book who are wary of the never-ending disputes about the existence and forms of corruption will still find in his writing a well-argued case against acute political inequality, one that holds up well on its own.  The list serv commentator who noted that big money has not “talked” all that loudly in this Presidential election was not “completely missing” the point, if his point was that we have gone around and around about consequences and perhaps missed the point.

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