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Money, Special Interests, and Political Equality

Concern over the role of special interests in the American democratic system are as old as the Republic.  My colleagues who discussed party politics in an earlier conversation topic have already cited James Madison’s concerns about the problems of factions in Federalist 10.  Many of the bad implications of factions cited by Madison are as evident in the politics of interests – special or otherwise – as they are in political parties in the United States.  The core of the problem has largely remained intact since Madison’s day.  It is still difficult to balance the need to pursue one’s own interest without creating permanent monopolies.  It is the scope and depth of the problem has increased dramatically and my overall assessment is that the impact of money and special interests on American politics is wide-ranging and pernicious.

My main concern is not, however, with the potential for political corruption that exists in the pursuit of donors and supporters.  While this corruption happens, and people are currently in jail for trading votes and other decisions for money or favors, this is only the most visible challenge presented by the role of money and special interests in our system.  And I believe literal corruption is actually a relatively minor threat to our democratic system.

Political Equality

My primary concern is about something more subtle and wide-ranging. One of the foundational commitments of democratic systems is political equality.  This is the idea that within the political system, each person has an equal stake, made practical in terms of voicing one’s opinions, voting, and access to governmental authority.  It is the foundation of popular sovereignty; the basic premise of authority and rule within democratic systems.  If citizens are not largely equal in their ability to help rule themselves, then tyranny is a likely outcome, whether in the form of a king, an aristocracy, or simply a long-term concentration of power in just a few individuals or groups.  The institutions of our political and governmental system are largely designed with this requirement in mind.  Majority rules in the legislative branch while minority rights are protected through civil liberties and the courts.  A citizen’s issue position may not win the day, but the system protects the right to come back and try again tomorrow.  Majority voices cannot rule minority voices out of being.  This fundamental principle is embedded in the pervasive checks and balances and separation of powers in our system.  One of the reasons it is so hard to create change of policy or institutions is that our political system is designed to be slow and deliberative, and to ensure the equal participation of citizens and their representatives.

In the United States, our vision of what political equality means, or more specifically who it pertains to, has expanded over the life of the Republic.  The Civil War Amendments (13th, 14th & 15th), expand both the definition of who deserves political equality and the responsibilities of governmental institutions in extending equal protection of the law to all citizens.  The 19th amendment extends to rights of equal citizenship and political equality to women and the laws passed in the Civil Rights era again expanded government’s responsibility to protect that equality.  Political equality is so important that Americans are constantly re-evaluating the principal and how well the political culture enables it.

 One of the key Supreme court decisions that gave context to the abstract idea of political equality was Baker vs. Carr in 1964.  It is from this decision that we get the idea of “one person, one vote.” Several states had not redistricted since the 1920s.  This meant that there were some congressional districts with than 400,000 people and others in the same state with over 1 million people. The court ruled that states must redistrict after every census because in not doing so, those voters in less populated districts had a vote that meant more than a person in a more populated district.  This is a clear violation of political equality and its remedy was an important step in making that equality more concrete.

Why is it important for the populations of congressional districts to be roughly equal?  And how does that principle inform our evaluation of the role of special interests and money in politics?  Because each citizen should have equal access to representation in the Congress.  No one person should have more impact on their member of Congress than any other person.  Now, any observant person will point out that there are many ways for a citizen to increase their representation.  A citizen can call or write their member of congress or can campaign for them when they run for re-election.  This activity will increase their impact on the representative’s thinking and decision-making. 

But the activities and strategies used by interest groups and lobbyists go far beyond these traditional forms of political participation.  They focus on the two types of currency most important for a decision-maker to stay in office, money and information.  In fact, while political scientists have not been able to establish a link between donating money to a campaign and specific policy choices of elected officials, there is a significant amount of evidence that campaign money buys access: a member’s time and attention.  So, the information, the opinions, and the policy preferences of these interests gets much more airtime on the decision-maker’s schedule than the needs of others in their constituencies. This cannot help but impact the decision of the officials and their staff. 

Representation Multipliers

So what this tells us is that it is not just money that is the issue, but all the factors that can help an individual, group, or business gain a bigger share of representation through dominating the attention of a decision-maker.  I call all of these things representational multipliers.  While many special interests also provide money to campaigns in some way, in many cases their primary multiplier is in the network of information they can provide to a decision-maker.  This is why the most successful lobbyists are those who have served in the positions of the people they later lobby.  These lobbyists better understand not only what information is relevant and persuasive, but can use their existing networks to provide information on other important player’s preferences.  For example, a former member of Congress that becomes an important lobbyist is successful not simply because they can steer campaign donations to a sitting member of Congress, but also because they understand the constraints a member of congress operates under and can advise the member about their options and the perspectives of others in their networks.  Money seems to be important to get a decision-makers attention, but keeping their attention requires a long term beneficial relationship based on other representational multipliers.

Representational Multipliers are not necessarily problematic on their own.  Decision-makers are finite beings who genuinely need expert help to manage all the disparate information required to make good decisions on policies.  Members of Congress cannot be experts in all the areas about which they are asked to make decisions. And it is perfectly rational for most people to spend little time thinking about politics as they carry out the other important tasks and roles they have as humans.  So we can expect that there will always be some disconnect between a representative and their constituents.  The concern I have is when these disconnects threaten fundamental political equality.

Political equality is threatened when citizens who desire to make their voice heard in government cannot because they have been crowded out by organizations and businesses whose resources so dwarf the average voter as to make them invisible. Having resources that allow you to catch decision-makers attention is not necessarily bad; using those resources to make sure that no one else gets heard is.

Citizens United, Speech Now, and Political Inequalities

These challenges to political equality are my primary concern with court decisions like Citizens United and its companion federal appeals court case Speech Now.  These cases set the groundwork for SuperPACs (a misnomer because of their exclusive function in independent rather than campaign expenditures).  They allow for an enormous amount of money to enter the political system, with very few safeguards on the impact or focus of their attempts to influence.  Perhaps more concerning is these cases’ precedent building treatment of both money and of business activity in elections.  While the court has historically ruled that money is equivalent to speech in terms of people’s ability to use it to make political statements, there are serious questions raised when money given to others to spend is treated in the same way.  Further, by expanding the idea of the corporate “person” to include civil liberties and free speech rights, it alters the playing field of political equality, giving collective actors rights beyond the individuals who make them up.  This is particularly problematic in the context of the need for political equality. The notion that a corporation, with resources far beyond the means of any individual, should be treated on the same level as an individual citizen goes against the core constitutional principal that gave citizens, not institutions or groups, the right to vote and choose representatives.  Even the original method of selecting Senators through each state’s legislature was abolished in the early 20th century in favor of popular voting for the office, removing one of the few representations of corporate actors, in this case the states, in our national political system.

So, what should our response be?  This is a long standing problem of incredible complexity.  Reversing the Citizen’s United decision, imposing more wide-ranging campaign finance legislation for both disclosure and spending limits, and creating more explicit conflict of interest laws are a good place to start.  These are concrete ways to limit the resource multipliers available to only a select group of people and organizations.  But people with resources will always seek a new way to use them to their advantage.

And it is not necessarily problematic to pursue one’s interest in democratic politics.  But there is an important tension at the heart of the democratic project, the interaction between individual citizens’ freedom and the necessity of citizens’ equality before the law and in political terms. Many of the deepest disagreements in our political system spring from the place where freedom and equality meet.  How much liberty are we willing to give up to ensure equality and how unequal are we willing to be in order to protect individual liberty? Americans generally recognize that, practically speaking, some individual liberty must be curtailed for the benefit of the whole, and that overall people are not equal in their capacities and resources. But there are contexts where this conflict comes into high relief, where providing for one expressly limits the other. This suggests that our solution should likely be one of balance, not of control.  A wise man once said that “money always finds a way.”  But popular sovereignty is not just rich people arguing with one another.

The other wicked challenge for political equality is the power of the status quo.  Our constitution purposely sets up a system that changes slowly.  Policy change is hard to come by and has to be agreed to by large proportions of decision makers.  This kind of change is especially hard when the policies affect very few people who already hold much of the power.  People and organizations who hold power behind the scenes based on their access to representational multipliers are not going to give up those advantages without a fight.  Overall, the predicament is complex and wide-ranging and the challenge of special interests in a democracy has plagued us from the beginning.  I do not hold out much hope for lobbying reform, let alone a comprehensive campaign finance solution.

Politics is a tool for loving our neighbors

So, how should a Christian respond inside a system that is not only broken, but seems unlikely to change? I think the most important thing we can do is to remember what politics is for.  It is a tool we can use to love our neighbor.  In this case, I think loving our neighbor combines both using our own representational multipliers in the service of people who do not have any and working to increase the resources of time, networks, education, and money available to those without these multipliers.  Political equality can be had by suppressing the excesses at the top of the ladder, but it can be achieved more holistically by helping to bring those with few resources up to a level playing field. This strategy requires an enormous amount of humility on our parts; we have to use our resources to let others’ voices be heard, not to convince them to echo our own preferences.  There is a great temptation to see our own political work as helping the least without actually taking the time to find out what it is these citizens need and want.  But approaching helping our neighbors in terms of political equality, and finding ways in which we can increase its practice, can help remind us that our neighbors are not simply instruments in helping us to create a good society; their participation on equal terms is what pushes toward a good society.

One challenge here is the pervasiveness of rights in our political thinking and rhetoric.  It is difficult for any American, I think, to sacrifice our individual freedoms for the sake of others’ freedom. It runs counter to not only our socialization but also our individual experience in an individualistic system.  Recall, however, Paul’s instructions on how to use our “rights.”  We are not to use our rights and freedoms as followers of Jesus to cause problems or destroy the consciences of other believers.  Namely, we are to love them by giving up our rights so they can enjoy the same freedom in Christ that we do.  I find that to be a powerful model of how Christians might use their own individual political rights in a democratic system.  We are not responsible for others freedom, but we are responsible for our own actions in promoting and protecting that freedom.  That sounds like a pretty good basis for creating pervasive political equality.

It is also important to recognize that this response is more than just an individual change.  Too many times, calls to religiously motivated political activity focus only on individual rather than systemic change.  Particularly in the context of reform within a democracy, it makes sense to look both at the individual and at how an individual can impact the larger system. There is plenty of historical evidence that suggests that this kind of engagement with our neighbors and those who are less politically equal is a way to create sustained systemic change.  Social movements across the political spectrum, most committed to expanding political rights and liberties of an under-resourced group, have been the great engine of increased political equality.  Abolitionists, women’s suffragists, and African-American civil rights activists all successfully broadened our definition of who deserves political equality in our system and what it should look like.  In many cases, these were people with representation multipliers of time, energy, networks, civic skills, and money, who chose to use those resources in the service of their under-represented neighbors, not for their own enrichment.  We have a similar opportunity to use our representation multipliers in service to building a more just political community.


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