Can Campaign Finance Fix an Ungovernable America?

Authored By 
Aaron Goldzimer
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

ISPS’s excellent May conference “Purchasing Power” raised a number of important questions about money in politics—but none more important than the need to think more carefully about precisely what problem we’re trying to address with campaign finance reform.

There is no question that our political system is unduly responsive to elites of many stripes, especially when it comes to less salient but highly consequential issues—as well as when it comes to defining the agenda and framing issues in the first place.

While this problem is not ultimately eradicable—no political system will treat everyone perfectly equally—the imbalance of influence is extreme; and it contributes to economic inequality, as political and economic inequality help to produce and exacerbate each other. The need to attract money for campaigns and, importantly, the fear of being targeted by money in those campaigns (together with money’s selection effect on the pool of viable candidates in the first place) are certainly main drivers of this “undue responsiveness,” although other factors—such as the “revolving door” incentive to look out for one’s future career prospects—also play a role. As such, campaign finance reform is a critically important endeavor.

As important and as troubling as this campaign-money nexus is, however, is it the primary problem currently afflicting our political system? There is an alternative story, one in which increasing political polarization is interacting with our system’s multiple veto-points to produce obstruction, gridlock, and fundamental ungovernability. My beef with some campaign finance evangelists, including the conference’s keynote speaker Larry Lessig, is when they try to sell campaign finance as the answer to this problem.

The two are related, of course. Political spenders tend to be more extreme than other members of society. And, as Sen. Chris Murphy noted at the conference, respectfully deliberating issues is not a good fundraising strategy; demonizing opponents and provoking anger and fear is what really gets the checkbooks out. Campaign finance contributes to political polarization.

But, even if we had the perfect campaign finance system and these effects were mitigated, do we really believe that political polarization or gridlock would disappear? We would still have increasing political polarization in the population, inflamed by cable news, talk radio, and internet franchises so purely profitable that their demagoguery is only partially moored to—and therefore constrained by—anyone’s actual interests or ideology. We would still have elected officials unable to deviate from the orthodoxy enforced by their side’s media and activists. We would still have tiny numbers of highly polarized primary voters nominating the winning candidates in safely gerrymandered districts. We would still have all of the cultural and procedural dynamics in Congress that have allowed partisan rancor to flourish (from the lack of social connections that once existed between members of different parties to the use of rules to exclude the minority or obstruct the majority party). Finally, we would still have two houses of Congress, the Presidency, and the filibuster—requiring, at the very least, two majorities, the White House, and up to ten minority senators to get anything done.

Is campaign finance the solution to this problem? It could be one piece of the solution—but I would argue that it is not the fundamental solution. As I’ve said, it is incredibly important (and I’ve been spending much of this year trying to help Connecticut advocates and legislative leadership fix some of the holes in its already-impressive system). But I do think we need to be clear about precisely what problem we’re trying to address—and, therefore, what interventions are likely or are not likely to be most effective—before advocates, academics, funders, and legislators devote precious resources to the excruciatingly difficult task of reform.

When I’ve pushed back on this point to Larry Lessig in the past, he’s offered a few different responses, including that he doesn’t know how you fix any of these other structural problems without fixing campaign finance first. However, these are all heavy lifts. I’m not sure public financing of campaigns is necessarily any easier than nonpartisan redistricting or “top-two” primaries, for example (both of which have recently been adopted in California).

Put simply, our objectives and strategies need to be dictated by a clear and precise definition of the problem we’re trying to fix. Campaign finance reform may be worth pursuing, but we shouldn’t throw all of our eggs into the campaign finance basket—it simply may not be enough to solve the current crisis of polarization and ungovernability in the United States.