Campaign finance is a major issue in global politics, and has come into increasing focus in recent years. One of the most well-known proponents of campaign finance reform is Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor of law. Lessig has expended much intellectual capital discussing and trying to address the problematic nature of campaign finance, including a book, a TED talk, a PAC, a failed Presidential bid, an arrest, and appearances all over media outlets, including an hour-long interview with The Young Turks. Lessig’s argument is framed in the context of the American political system, but the logic of the argument applies on a global scale, the central idea being that campaign finance reform is the most important issue facing the United States today, because campaign finance influences the outcomes of all other issues.
Lessig’s argument is predicated on the notion of a false democracy borne of big-money interests deciding which candidates for political office the American public is allowed to choose from. He points out how large proportions of the money contributed to political campaigns can be traced to a handful (less than a few hundred) of billionaires and other moneyed individuals, and he points to specific legislation, such as Citizens United vs. The FEC, that has allowed these people and their associated special interest apparatus to dominate political finance. He argues, rightly I believe, that with politicians being beholden to special interests in order to get elected, the notion of a democracy that governs on behalf of the well-being of the people has been cast aside.
Many self-described progressives and people who self-identify as being on the political left have latched onto this idea. They correctly observe that it is hard, for instance, to take any meaningful legislative action to combat the impending cataclysm of global warming when oil companies, with a vested interest in seeing oil production and consumption continue in as unrestricted a fashion as they can get away with, are among the largest funders of political campaigns, or that it will be all but impossible to put into place functional banking reform to stave off further economic catastrophes when huge financial institutions are also massive political contributors. The politicians cannot get elected without the say-so of these institutions and their billionaire captains, so they are willing to play by the rules set up by these interests in order to maintain their positions in political office.
I do not disagree with this argument. I believe that we cannot rely on politicians to do anything in the interest of the people when the special interests that bribe them are telling them to do the opposite. The evidence agrees with this position, as put forth by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page in their paper, Testing Theories of American Politics. In it, they found that the policy decisions of the United States government do not reflect the majority 0pinion of the American people but, rather, reflect the desires of special interests, thereby defining the United States as an oligarchy and not a democracy. Simply put, you would do just as well electing a Congressional candidate who vows to flip a coin to determine his or her vote on every bill as you would electing a candidate who makes promises and outlines a specific platform.
I believe all of this is accurate, that the United States is an oligarchy and campaign finance plays a major role in making the United States an oligarchy, but I think these are merely symptoms of larger, more insidious problems, problems that are so deeply ingrained in American culture that it is hard to even discuss them without people immediately dismissing everything you have to say out of hand. The problems are capitalism and representative democracy. Corruption is an inevitable consequence of both capitalism and representative democracy, and when either is in place it will manifest. When both are in place, it will manifest with exponentially more force.
If we consider the case of Citizens United, we can logically conclude that it would not be a problem at all if there were no economic inequality among the electorate. If every person had the same wealth, everyone would have the option to contribute the same amount of money to political campaigns. Some people would value this more highly than others, and there would surely be a disparity in how much one person gives relative to the next, but at least it would be fair, with all people having the same ability to influence the outcome of a campaign via his or her contribution. Thus, in the absence of capitalist-derived economic inequality, we see that corruption attributable to campaign finance disappears. But, this is just one aspect, and it does not contradict Lessig’s argument. Under his argument, if the legislative framework for campaign finance corruption were removed and replaced with publicly funded elections that are free and fair to all citizens, it would allow other issues to get discussed by elected officials without the specter of having their economic backing pulled out from under them by vindictive special interests, and, thus, it wouldn’t matter that those special interests have more capital than average citizens, because they would not be able to leverage it to win elections.
Where this argument falls short is that campaign finance is merely the beginning of corruption, not the end of it. Legislation is written by special interests, not elected officials or their staff. Seemingly endless perks are given to politicians by special interests throughout their political careers. Doors are open to politicians and their family members by moneyed interests. Lucrative careers await politicians when they are elected out of office or retire. One need look no further than cases like Chelsea Clinton and her stint with NBC, or Eric Cantor and his seven-figure signing bonus, or Al Gore and the explosion of his net worth from $1.7 million in 2000 to over $200 million thanks to his tech-industry connections forged while in political office, pushing for their interests, or how being a political lobbyist flipped Howard Dean’s opinions of healthcare.
The money is everywhere. The corruption is everywhere. Campaign finance is the tip of the iceberg. Why would anyone really believe that a candidate elected to office in a free and fair election would not be corrupted by the allure of millions of dollars of easy cash? No matter what type of reform or legislation the American people want, the notion of being able to exorcise money from politics in a capitalist system is naive at best, and a dangerous distraction at worst. Do rational people really think the backers of interests like Citizens United don’t have other plans for how to use their egregious financial resources to further their own interests? Of course they do, and campaign finance reform does little to root this out. Even with fair elections money will still influence politics and the United States will still be an oligarchy.
The second fundamental problem inhibiting a democratic, majoritarian government from taking root in the United States is the system of representative democracy itself. In 1911, a German sociologist named Robert Michels put forth the idea of The Iron Law of Oligarchy. At its essence, the law stipulates that any organization with an administrative or bureaucratic class eventually develops into oligarchy, regardless of how or why the organization started. He predicated this idea on the notion that the people in charge of the organization will shift to primarily looking out for their own interests rather than the stated goals of the organization. We see this all the time. The United States Congress is a fine example, with politicians taking bribes from special interests and doing their bidding instead of doing the job they were elected to do. But we also see it everywhere, in all sorts of organizations, from multinational corporations to non-profits. CEOs and boards charged with operating companies do not hesitate to divert more and more profits to themselves and away from workers, regardless of whether it helps or hurts the company as a whole. Even charities routinely come under fire for paying their operators high salaries and devoting ever-diminishing percentages of the donations they receive to the causes they were founded to address.
The Iron Law is merely a theory, impossible to prove in a complex human civilization, but there can be no denial that administrative classes routinely take on a life of their own and their members all but forget why the organization was founded in the first place. Some of the most mind-bending cases come from the American public education system, where the alleged purpose is to educate the children of the United States. In order to do this, teachers are needed and, over time, in order to protect against the mistreatment of teachers by the school districts and other administrative classes that developed around the public education system, teachers unions were developed. The primary focus of the unions was the teachers, not the students, and, over time, the protection of the teachers even at the expense of the students became the norm. All the while, the administrators of the union became more powerful and richer, and now the income of the upper-level union administrators far outstrips that of the teachers they supposedly represent. Through this all, the children have been utterly forgotten, and the public schools keep getting worse.
Make no mistake; representative democracy is the definition of an administrative class, and the Iron Law posits that it will inevitably lead to oligarchy. In this system, the people are literally electing other people to administer them; it is illogical to expect the next batch of elected officials to behave any differently than the last, or the next administrative class to break from the same patterns of behavior that every administrative class that came before it has exhibited. The only way for a democracy to circumvent this is to have a democracy without politicians, a direct democracy. For the first time in human history, this is beginning to be technologically feasible on a large scale, though any progress in this department will inevitably be slowed by capitalism and the administrative framework presently in place.
With the twin demons of capitalism and representative democracy crushing the life out of democracy and continually reshaping every push for majoritarian rule toward oligarchy, there is no great mystery as to why the United States was found to be an oligarchy in the study by Gilens and Page, and I would not be surprised at all to learn that oligarchy is ubiquitous in the world, and likely correlates highly to wealth inequality, such that the greater disparity seen in a nation’s wealth inequality, the greater the strength of oligarchy is vis-a-vis democracy.
Despite all of that, I don’t think that all hope is lost. There are people trying to make a difference and having some success. The Black Lives Matter movement is not centralized and doesn’t even have an administrative class, yet it has scored some major victories at the local level, working to get corrupt, racist officials elected out of office. It managed this without endorsing any specific platform or official, but rather by mobilizing people against injustice. A non-capitalist, non-corporatist movement with no corruptible administrative apparatus is hard to influence away from its founding principles, and Black Lives Matter is pure in that regard and can function with justice being its only cause, with no special interests getting in the way. Part and parcel to justice is closing the economic gaps that pervade modern society, and when Black Lives Matter and other movements get the momentum to confront that problem head-on, we will see avenues of corruption dry up. If one person can’t be a million times more influential than the next by way of the disparity of wealth between them, then influence will be shifted back to the will of the people and away from the will of a then-extinct elite.
A second entity, Place A Vote, is attempting to revolutionize democracy in America by effectively taking the politician out of politics. The idea is that the political decisions of elected officials can be checked against the preferences of the districts they supposedly represent. Politicians can be rated for how well they really represent their districts and, in a more proactive approach, Place A Vote has encouraged people to run on a platform of voting how their district wants them to. Pure majoritarian rule is not without problems, and there is nothing in place to guarantee that people who run on a platform of always voting how their district wants will be able to beat heavily-funded opponents or that they will keep their promise when in office, but it surely has to be an improvement over how things are now.
I will close by saying that I do not disagree with Professor Lessig or with all of the political movements that have sprung up around the notion that a corrupt campaign finance system inhibits government from truly serving its people. An unfair campaign finance system does inhibit government from serving the interests of the people, and I hope that campaign finance reform ultimately does happen such that moneyed interests can no longer influence the outcome of elections. At the very least, nothing will get worse because of this, and there is the chance things could get better. I am skeptical of that, though, and I believe it is an idealist, incrementalist approach that will ultimately bear no fruit when it comes to revolutionizing the American political system. As long as Americans insist on a capitalist system complete with a class of administrative elites looming over us, we will never expunge corruption and we will always be living in an oligarchy.