The Real Problem With Money in Politics is Inequality

In his review of Richard Hasen’s book Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Gilad Edelman notes that in the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court held that “the only justification for the burden that spending limits place on the First Amendment right to free speech is preventing quid pro quo corruption—that is, bribery—or its appearance.” One of the reasons that decision has been so difficult to challenge is that the issue of money in politics isn’t necessarily a question of quid pro quo corruption.

Instead, the argument should be focused on inequality.

Votes, not money, are the approved currency of democracy. It’s just that the corruption theories don’t explain this difference; in fact, they obscure it. That’s one reason why Richard Hasen, in his new book, Plutocrats United, argues that it’s time to stop talking about corruption and start being honest about the real problem: inequality. “The constitutionality of campaign finance laws should not turn on whether we can fit an argument about influence into the anticorruption box,” Hasen writes. The problem with money is that, unlike votes, some people have a lot more of it than others. We object to unlimited political spending because it gives the richest Americans far more influence over government than everyone else. “It is cleaner to stop shoehorning equality concerns into broad definitions of corruption,” Hasen writes, “and to defend political equality as an interest in its own right.”

But as important as it is to make the correct argument, that might not be enough.

That means the future of campaign finance reform likely depends on the upcoming presidential election. Kennedy and Justice Antonin Scalia are both seventy-nine years old; the liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are seventy-seven and eighty-two, respectively. A Democratic president could get the chance to install a new and potentially long-lasting liberal majority; a Republican could push the Court even further to the right.

This review presents an excellent discussion of an issue that should be front and center are we head in to the 2016 election.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.