Hypocrisy and Campaign Finance

I want to agree with Jonathan Chait, who argues there’s nothing at all hypocritical about playing by the current campaign finance rules even as one attempts to change those rules in the future.

However…he (I take it) and I agree that there’s nothing inherently immoral about any particular campaign finance regime, but it’s not true that everyone agrees. Some people — lots of people, many of whom write editorials for prominent newspapers — believe that certain kinds of campaign donations are inherently corrupt and corrupting, whether or not they are legal. If you believe that, then taking such donations is presumably problematic, even if it’s for the long-term goal of changing the rules and ending corruption. If, on the other hand, you simply believe that the current system is poorly designed or (unfairly) enhances the interests of some citizens at the expense of others, then there’s nothing problematic at all with exploiting it while it exists. In other words, if you believe there’s such a thing as legalized corruption and then participate in the activities that you’ve called legalized corruption, then it’s fair game to ask whether you are, in fact, corrupt. I don’t know whether or not Obama fits into that category; I did look back at his 2010 SOTU slam at Citizens United, and he did not talk about corruption.

Generally, I think the case made by Russ Feingold and others that Democrats have adopted a “corporate-dominated policy agenda” because of campaign finance is very, very weak. Democrats have never (regardless of the campaign finance regime, including the full presidential public financing of the 1970s) been a socialist party, and there are all sorts of understandable reasons for that having nothing to do with campaign donations.  And if you’re not going to be a socialist party, you’re going to…well, I don’t know whether you’ll necessarily be “corporate-dominated,” but you’re certainly going to care about what your corporate constituents think. Whether or not they count as “persons” or not. None of which is to say that different campaign finance regimes can’t have at least marginal effects, but at least in my reading of the evidence there’s a whole lot of myth surrounding this stuff.

While it’s not quite relevant here, I’ll put in another plug for floors, not ceilings: what I’d really like is sufficient public financing that both Republicans and Democrats could run real campaigns in all 435 House districts and for every Senate seat (and beyond that, for all state legislative seat). And above that, let them raise and spend what they want, how they want, with full and meaningful disclosure.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.