How can liberals win in the new campaign finance environment?
For all the talk about liberal ascendency in a lot of conservative circles as of late, liberals certainly don’t seem to feel like they are on top of the political world these days. The 2014 midterms don’t look so hot, Obama still isn’t that popular, and Scott Walker might easily win reelection. But of all the political issues out there that are bumming liberals out, probably none is seen as soul-crushing as the Supreme Court’s continuing decisions opening the floodgates to unlimited money in politics.
The latest of these decisions was McCutcheon v. FEC. Simply put there used to be a cap of $48,600 for all donations political donors could make to any candidates in any one election cycle and another yearly cap of $74,600 for donations made to political action committees (PACs) and party committees. After McCutcheon that’s now gone.
However this new ruling hardly means there are no rules about money in politics. For example, the most you can give to a candidate for Federal office remains $2,600, but under the new rules you can give a lot more to a party itself or just say write hundreds of $2,600 checks to lots of individual candidates if you wanted to.
But the big picture isn’t exactly hopeful for liberals who favor limits on political spending. With McCutcheon the Roberts Court is continuing its trend of equivocating money in politics with speech. With the end result being a gradual chipping away of all sorts of rules regulating money in politics.
This general trend tends to have liberals pretty bummed and some of this is for good reason. The modern system of reporting contributions, rules on who could give, and caps on the most people could give that came into effect after Watergate and was one of the political high water marks of the liberals that dominated Congress in the 70s. And while a few notable Republicans like John McCain have championed campaign finance rules, historically the push to limit political spending has come from liberals.
So what’s a liberal to do in this new reality? Well one response would be for liberals to go into a “blue period” and declare that all progress on the issue is impossible and move on. Or you could try to amend the Constitution to fix this problem. That might work, but since amending the Constitution is by design the hardest possible thing to do in American politics, this strikes me as being pretty unlikely, at least in the short to medium term.
A smarter move would be to just accept the new system and try to find out how best to use it to your advantage. And I can think of at least three major ways that liberals could work within the emerging campaign finance system to pursue their political goals here. They can minimize the harm caused by unregulated money in politics, highlight the worst offenders, and hold those individuals and organizations who engage in spending accountable for their behavior.
Minimizing harm could be pretty easily achieved by simply adopting a “floors not ceilings” approach to federal elections. Rather than trying to minimize the role of money through a complex system of caps and rules on donations and spending we could just adopt a simple system of supplying a basic amount of money for major party candidates for federal office. This would go a long way to eliminating the disparities between well-funded candidates and everyone else because campaign spending offers diminishing returns when it comes to winning elections. Simply put the difference created by the first million dollars of campaign spending is much more important than the difference between spending 10 million and 11 million.
Secondly liberals would do well to just get more information out there about who spends what on what. There are lots of great resources online for those people involved in politics about who is giving and spending in politics but by and large it’s not very accessible to the public. A campaign finance beat could be a great addition to a lot of the new data drive journalism sites out there and at the very least liberal bloggers could stop writing about vague ideas like “big money in politics” or “corruption” and give us some specific examples of individuals engaging in quid pro quo.
Finally since corporate money is going to be part of the American political scene for the foreseeable future, liberals should work to make sure corporate spending on issues they don’t like comes with a high price tag the same way that environmental degradation or any other number of corporate maleficence does. Mozilla didn’t force out former CEO Brendan Eich out of the goodness of their heart, they did so because keeping him on board would have probably entailed very real costs because of his past political donations. Maybe that wasn’t the nicest thing in the world, but politics doesn’t have to be nice. The civil rights movement didn’t succeed because Martin Luther King was such a swell guy. It succeeded because, among other reasons, it used economic pressure to change the behavior of the powerful, which is just politics 101.
These prescriptions won’t result in a liberal utopia where wealth can’t be translated in political clout. But then again no democracy has ever been such a utopia. The fact that big money will stay in politics doesn’t mean that liberals have to give up, they just should work hard to adjust themselves to the new reality the Roberts Court is creating. That might not be ideal, but then again the ideal has no place in politics. You’re going to die one day, but that doesn’t mean you should stop eating.
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