Like many divisive political issues, campaign finance is a battle of values: freedom versus equality.
Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, we’ve seen more money than ever flood elections. Direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns are still limited to $2,700, but “soft money”—indirect spending—took a turn after 2010. The court’s decision stated that corporations and unions can spend unlimited funding on political activities, which often takes the form of issue advertisements, often endorsing certain candidates.
Attempts to limit spending in different ways, such as the 2002 “McCain-Feingold” legislation, have become largely impotent by Supreme Court decisions in 2010 like Citizens United and Speechnow.org v. FEC, which allows unlimited contributions from individuals to organizations that take conduct political activities.
We’re in an era of essentially unlimited spending to try to get candidates elected. Two questions arise: Is this a problem for democracy? If so, how can we fix the system?
In his 2006 book The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, John Samples, Vice President and Publisher of the libertarian Cato Institute, argues that political spending is protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment as freedom of speech. This is the same reasoning that the Supreme Court has employed in its decisions to disallow campaign finance regulations.
Many who support campaign finance regulations argue that unlimited donations creates corruption. However, the Supreme Court finds no examples of “quid pro quo”—exchanging contributions for political decision-making to favor the donor—and Samples highlights the lack of conclusive research proving any of this kind of corruption.
In his 2011 book Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and Harvard Law professor, argues that unlimited political donations have created a different kind of corruption. Candidates exhibit this kind of corruption by holding large gatherings for wealthy people, with the purpose of raising campaign funds. He also describes the reality of campaigning: it takes a lot of money to do so.
Lessig describes this “dependency” of candidates on wealthy donors as corruption. Oxford Dictionaries defines corruption as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.” Lessig’s argument, therefore, states that our political system—a democratic republic—is dishonest, as the time and access that candidates give to wealthy donors does not reflect the principle that candidates represent all citizens, not just the rich ones. Lessig contends that this causes citizens to lose faith and trust in government.
There isn’t much compelling research that unlimited political spending by individuals, organizations, and corporations concretely harms decision-making by politicians—though many argue that candidates are beholden to corporate interests, as businesses often contribute to and benefit from decisions made by anti-regulation politicians—but it’s easy to see that candidates do rely on large-scale funding to campaign. Just look at the 2016 Presidential race: As of August 1—for those donations that have been disclosed—all major candidates had raised over $10 million, with most having raised over $15 million (and the top three having raised $120 million, $67 million, and $52, respectively).
Lessig is right, that this does seem to create a dependency of candidates on lots of money, which—under the current laws—is most easily raised from wealthy individuals and corporations. However, many believe that political spending is akin to free speech, and that regulating campaign contributions is unconstitutional. So, the state of campaign finance law does seem to distort the “representativeness” of our democracy, but how can we limit freedom of financial expression, constitutionally?
This clash of freedom versus (democratic) equality is reconcilable. The most common solution—which 13 states currently employ, in some fashion—is public campaign financing, which provides candidates campaign funding from government revenue if that candidate raises a certain amount of donations under a certain amount, incentivizing candidates to focus on more individuals, and therefore relatively fewer wealthy individuals.
Solutions like this still allow for freedom of expression through campaign contributions and attempts to improve democratic equality. However, is there enough political will to enact such solutions? And, will some sort of public campaign financing actually solve the problem of dependency on wealthy donors?
Look out for upcoming articles in UCDI’s series about money in politics.
Sam Zacher is a fourth-year in the College studying political science and economics.
The University of Chicago Democracy Initiative (UCDI) is an independent, nonpartisan, student-led organization.