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Response to "Money in Politics"

As I read Frank Hill‘s essay, I actually think our view on some of the realities of the current system are fairly similar; I can agree with many of his assessments of the role of money in politics.  I suspect it is at a more fundamental level that we’ll disagree, though.

Where we agree…

First, money does not change a politician’s mind.  I wholeheartedly agree.  There’s very little evidence that any type of campaign contribution or favor impacts decision-makers votes.  But that’s true of a wide range of things we tend to assume have an impact on elected officials’ decision-making.  Decisions tend to be black boxes and very hard to find explicit evidence for influence of any kind.  And we also know that lobbyists actually do not spend a lot of time trying to convince opponents; they spend most of their time with supporters.  I think this points to a subtler problem, but on the surface, these things are absolutely true.  And campaigns do need money.  It’s expensive to try to communicate your idea to voters in ways that make impact.  Many other things are competing for citizens’ attention and it’s just modern reality that it takes money to get and hold the attention of the people one wants to represent.

I also strongly agree that most people’s opposition to “money in politics” is opposition to “money in politics I don’t agree with.” Extreme polarization creates a number of problems in our system, and this is just one of them.  We don’t want to win an argument with our opponents, we want to shut them up and take away their right to speak.  I think this is a symptom of a larger issue, however, and that is our demonization of the “other side.”  Yes, more money can help us make our message louder, but it doesn’t necessarily make that message more true, or more helpful to the larger democratic system.  More money frequently means more opportunity to tear down the other side, a situation that political scientists have found decreases voter turn-out across the board.  Even if you agree with the negative advertising, it makes you less likely to participate in politics.  Let’s move beyond our partisan politics and talk about the impact of money and special interests on representation for everybody.  From my perspective, even if my side wins, all citizens lose when their voices are not heard.

Three cheers for disclosure!  I’m definitely supportive of the kind of comprehensive, real-time donation disclosure Frank Hill suggests.  On a practical level, this may be the only way to improve some of the challenges I see in the system, at least in the near term.  And I strongly agree with the idea that the solution is found in more information.  Disclosure laws with real teeth certainly give citizens the kind of information they need to make better decisions about who they should support. 

I think Mr. Hill and I agree on some very basic principles as well.  Men are not angels and that’s why we need government.  But we need government to help protect our fundamental rights.  Left to our own devices, people would (and do!) try to use majority power to not only achieve their policy goals, but to make sure that those who disagree can no longer contest the issue.  Government is there to serve as the referee; one of its jobs is to make sure that people have equal access to the freedoms that are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  Those freedoms mean nothing if we cannot use them.

Where we somewhat agree…

This brings us to an issue on which I think we agree, but only up to a point.  I very much agree that one of the core challenges in the conversation about money and special interests in politics is one of free speech.  As Americans, our free speech rights are among the most comprehensively protected in the world and that is one of the reasons our democratic system has been so long-lived and stable.  But it is important to recognize that even our free speech rights are not inviolable.  There are situations in which we limit free speech in order to protect public safety.  If you yell “fire” in a crowded theater (and there is no fire), that is not protected speech.  If you stand on the steps of a state capitol with a gun in your hand advocating overthrow of the government, that is not protected speech.  We limit freedom of speech when it is a clear and present danger to the citizens or the political system.  And we already limit some kinds of campaign spending and lobbying behavior for these same reasons.  Businesses are not allowed to contribute money directly to political campaigns, and former elected and appointed officials have a waiting period before they can lobby their former institutions.  This is a recognition that some types of speech are so compelling that other citizen’s liberty are threatened by the protection of an individual citizen’s rights.  That is what I see happening with money in politics, and particularly the equation of money with speech.  It is legitimate to limit freedom in order to ensure that freedom can extend to everyone, therefore it is legitimate to limit individual freedom to spend money in order to make sure everyone has an equal shot at representation within the political system.

And where we disagree…

I think my basic disagreement with Mr. Hill is that I read his essay to mean that the money spent in politics is just about money.  As I argued in my first essay, I think money in politics is a symptom of a much deeper problem of unequal political rights and access to representation.  But money in and of itself can definitely be a problem.  I disagree that money only follows philosophy; I think there is good evidence that money shapes philosophy as well.  This seems particularly true in the context of most decisions, which are not either/or decisions about policy, but are more nuanced decisions about who and what get resources and attention. Candidates and elected officials are afraid to offend powerful interests not simply for the $2000 donation that can be made each election cycle, but for the much larger amounts that PACs can send their way through bundling.  Why else would many members of the Congressional leadership in both parties have their own PACs?  They are trying to exert influence on who gets elected and the policy positions those elected officials will take.  If I am a freshman member who won with money from a leadership PAC, I’d be well-served to make sure my opinions about many issues line up with the leadership. PACs don’t just serve as a conduit for campaign money, they inform donors about the positions and goals of a candidate.  And they inform candidates about the position and goals of the people giving them money.  This isn’t just money, its access, attention, and influence.

I think the problem with money and influence is even more starkly exhibited in the “pay-to-play” system of Washington lobbying. The “K-street Project” was initiated by Republicans in the 1990s, but used to similar effect by Democrats when they were in power.  If a lobbyist or their firm did not donate money to party candidates and PACs, they would receive no access to the party leadership in Congress.  This is an explicit system of trading money for influence.  This is not about a single contribution causing a member of congress to change their mind, it’s about a pervasive system that requires money and resources in order to get access to representation.  The rules of the game are set up to encourage politicians to anticipate what donors will like and to only pay attention to those people who have already contributed to their campaigns or others from their party.  This is the real challenge of money in politics.

Overall, I think the key question for Frank Hill and others who see no problem with the current regime of money and special interests in politics is about what is the impact of that money on democratic representation.  I am sympathetic to the arguments I’ve read about the nature of freedom, the necessity of money to get one’s message out, and even the fact that elections cost much less than many other things American society purchases (not only do we spend more on Halloween, but we spend more on potato chips every year).  But I think that these arguments miss the point.  It’s not really about how much we spend, or the fact we have the right to spend it; the point is that money and other resources buy an outsized piece of representation, something that is supposed to be equally distributed among sovereign citizens in a democracy. My concern is less about the money itself and more about the crowding out effect it has on the voices of average citizens.

How can we be faithful to our Christian Commitments, together?

I think one of the strengths of Mr. Hill’s approach is his recognition of the system and situation as it stands, not a hoped-for utopia.  Recognizing that we do not live in a theocracy is important.  Moreover, recognizing that we interact with people of many faiths and no faiths at all within the political sphere is fundamental not only to our understanding of money in politics but also to understanding our American democracy.  We are certainly fallen, and we cannot expect some perfectly organized government would be able to solve that.  We must have and use our freedom of expression to argue for our vision of the good society.  But it is also the case that the loudest, most resourced voices are always right.  Christians need discernment, but we also need the guarantee that our voice can be heard, no matter how unpopular or under-resourced we are.  I don’t know if Mr. Hill would share my view that politics is about love, but I do think he shares my opinion that democratic politics requires citizens to be able to use their voice. 

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