Today’s Dose of Liberal Heresy: Campaign Finance Reform Isn’t That Big a Deal

I was musing the other day about something or other, and for some reason it occurred to me that there are several subjects near and dear to progressive hearts that I flatly disagree with. I’m not talking about, say, charter schools, where there’s a robust, ongoing intra-liberal debate and both sides already have plenty of adherents. Nor am I talking about things like Wall Street regulation, where everyone (including me) thinks we need to do more but we disagree on technical issues (Bernie wants to break up big banks, I want to double capital requirements).

I’m thinking instead of things that seem to enjoy something like 90+ percent liberal support—and which I think are basically a waste of liberal time and energy. So if I write about them, a whole lot of people are going to be pissed off. Something like 90+ percent of my readership, I’d guess. Who needs the grief? After all, for the most part there’s usually not much harm in spending time and energy on these things (though there are exceptions).

But let’s give it a go anyway. Maybe this will be the first entry in a periodic series. Maybe I’ll discover that I’m not quite as alone on these issues as I think. Here’s my first entry.

Campaign Finance Reform

Liberals love campaign finance reform. Citizens United is our Roe v. Wade, and it’s become an even more central issue since Bernie Sanders began his presidential run last year. As near as I can tell, Bernie—along with most liberals—thinks it’s the key foundational issue of modern progressivism. Until we seriously reduce the amount of money in political campaigns, no real progressive reform is possible.

I’m pretty sure this is completely wrong. Here are seven reasons that have persuaded me of this over the years, with the most important reason left to the end:

  1. Half a century has produced nothing. Liberal groups have been putting serious effort into campaign finance reform for about 40 years now. The only result has been abject failure. Ban union donations, they create PACs. Ban hard money, you get soft money. Ban soft money, you get Super PACs. Etc. None of the reforms have worked, and even before Citizens United the Supreme Court had steadily made effective reform efforts harder and harder. What’s even worse, the public still isn’t with us. If you ask them vaguely if they think there’s too much money in politics, most will say yes. If you ask them if they really care, they shrug. After nearly half a century, maybe it’s time to ask why.
  2. Other countries spend less. Most other rich countries spend a lot less on political campaigns than we do. Are they less in thrall to moneyed interests because of this? Some are, some aren’t. I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that there’s much of a correlation.
  3. Billionaires are idiots. Seriously. The evidence of the last decade or so suggests that billionaires just aren’t very effective at using their riches to win elections. This is unsurprising: billionaires are egotists who tend to think that because they got rich doing X, they are also geniuses at Y and Z and on beyond zebra. But they aren’t. This stuff is a hobby for them, and mostly they’re just wasting their money.
  4. The small-dollar revolution. Starting with Howard Dean in 2004, the internet has produced an explosion of small-dollar donations, accounting for over a third of presidential fundraising in 2012 and 2016. This year, for example, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $288 million (including money raised by outside groups). Bernie Sanders has raised $208 million, all of it in small-dollar donations averaging $27. Ironically, at the same time that he’s made campaign finance reform a major issue, Bernie has demonstrated that small dollars can power a serious insurgency.
  5. Money really is speech. Obviously this is an opinion, and a really rare one on my side of the political spectrum. But why should political speech be restricted? My read of the First Amendment suggests that if there’s any single kind of speech that should enjoy the highest level of protection, it’s political speech.
  6. We may have maxed out anyway. There’s increasing evidence that in big-time contests (governors + national offices), we’ve basically reached the point of diminishing returns. At this point, if billionaires spend more money it just won’t do much good even if they’re smart about it. There are only so many minutes of TV time available and only so many persuadable voters. More important, voters have only so much bandwidth. Eventually they tune out, and it’s likely that we’ve now reached that point.

    In the interests of fairness, I’ll acknowledge that I might be wrong about this. It might turn out that there are clever ways to spend even more; billionaires might get smarter; and Citizens United has only just begun to affect spending. Maybe in a couple of decades I’ll be eating my words about this.

  7. Campaign spending hasn’t gone up much anyway. I told you I’d leave the most important reason for the end, and this is it. It’s easy to be shocked when you hear about skyrocketing billions of dollars being spent on political campaigns, but billions of dollars aren’t that much in a country the size of the United States. In 2012, Obama spent $1.1 billion vs. Mitt Romney’s $1.2 billion. That’s about 1 percent of total ad spending in the US. Hell, in the cell phone biz alone, AT&T spent $1.3 billion vs. Verizon’s $1.2 billion. If you want to look at campaign spending, you really need to size it to the growth in GDP over the past half century or so.

So here it is. These two charts show our skyrocketing spending on presidential campaigns as a percent of GDP. Data for the chart on the left comes from Mother Jones. The chart on the right comes from the Center for Responsive Politics. Total presidential spending is up about 18 percent since 2000. I suppose I’d like to see this reduced as much as the next guy, but it’s hard to see it as the core corrupter of American politics. It’s a symptom, but it’s really not the underlying disease. There really are problems with the influence of the rich on American politics, but campaigns are probably the place where it matters least, not most.