Commentators who don’t agree about campaign finance don’t disagree about every aspect of it. Reformers and their opponents both accept this much: that Americans distrust politicians and suspect the “undue influence” of money over their behavior. But that’s as far the shared view goes: from there, conclusions diverge. It is a remarkable fact about campaign finance—and a reason for the persistent divisions over law and policy—that general agreement on a fundamental point about money in politics can produce disagreement on the question of whether reform is needed.


1. Joe Nocera, columnist for reform: He interviews a prominent ACLU critic of spending restrictions and reports his view that these limits do more harm than good, perhaps attacking corruption at the margin but at the price of severe damage to free speech. Nocera then distils for the reader the key question about the role of money in politics in this way:

           Me, I’m not convinced. Are you?

 He does not say why he is not convinced: he just states the question and assumes that his readers will come up with the same answer. The proposition that politicians who take money will be swayed by is one, he is confident, that people tend to believe.

2.  Rick Wilson, Republican consultant against reform, effectively agrees with Nocera that voter opinion of politicians is low; they are confident that candidates and elected officials are “corrupt a** holes” who will favor their financial benefactors. This view, he believes, is “baked in the cake”: voters “get” that there is an issue with money in politics.

Of course, if that is true, then Joe Nocera and Rick Wilson are both right: campaign spending practices raise questions troubling to voters.

3. Larry Lessig, Harvard Law Professor, established a reform Super PAC to prove that voters care about reform and would vote for reform candidates. His candidates did not fare well and their fates did not make his point. Now collecting data, he remains convinced that voters do care about money in politics. They have strong opinions not dissimilar from his own, but they will overlook reform issues in favor of winning—their partisanship wins out over whatever concerns they have about money in politics.

Lessig certainly agrees with others that voters distrust the role of money in politics but, like Wilson, he appreciates, more now than before, that these voters may put other concerns first in casting their ballots.

4.  George Will, a columnist strongly critical of the regulation of political money, believes that the inexorable logic of reform is more oppressive regulation. Law enforcement must contend with resistance on the part of parties, candidates and activists who want to collect and spent resources on their political projects, and the more resistance there is, the more expansive and intrusive are the legal programs for forcing compliance and punishing deviance. With the more aggressive reform and enforcement program comes the risk of partisanship in law enforcement, or the perception of abuse.

Both Democrats and Republicans have in the past voiced these objections. And what Will has to say is not inconsistent with the Nocera, Wilson, Lessig and ACLU’s judgments about the possible problems with politicians and their campaign funds, or voter perception of the problems. In fact, George Will concurs that government is “busy allocating wealth and opportunity to the politically well-connected”—a view not unlike, say, Joe Nocera’s, except that Will believes that it is big government, and not big money, that is the problem in the first instance.

So there is an unmovable obstacle to agreement in the different calculations of cost and benefit: if voters have qualms about politician behavior with campaign money, but they have other priorities or don’t believe that the behavior will change—that it is “baked in the cake”—then it is fair to raise the ACLU’s point that anything done to reform the process cannot outweigh the costs and burdens of regulation. The reform-minded disagree, of course: they say more can be done to make a difference. But that “more” is the rub: the more that is done, the more burdensome the regulation, and we are back to the question of whether the results they hope for for will justify the cost.

The “undue influence” or “corruption” theory of campaign finance reform has been stuck for years in this cycle of disagreement about costs and benefits. Reform supporters hope to escape it, and to win, by proving the depth of undue influence to which politics has sunk. They are met with the complaint they have misconstrued influence, confusing it with ordinary politics, or have overstated any problem that exists in either fact or public perception, and that they fail to account for the costs of the extensive legal restrictions accompanied by harsh penalties that they propose.

The question now, decades into this debate, is whether there is an alternative view, one that allows for a recognition that the control of resources in politics raises legitimate public policy questions, but that steers clear of this deadlock over “undue influence.”

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