Campaign Silence Reform


This has been a particularly loud year for the “get money out of politics” crowd. Certainly the Citizens United decision didn’t do much for them, but I have to admit I’ve never understood the big push to get money out of politics in the first place. Setting aside jokes about an honest politician being one who stays bought, the reasoning behind trying to get money out of politics seems to be, as I understand it, that rich people will simply buy influence and we lesser folk will simply be ignored.

I’d like to explore how that works two ways. First, let’s consider a world in which we don’t allow anyone to donate at all to political campaigns. After all, money doesn’t equal speech, right? So no need to let anyone donate to any candidate. But then does that mean candidates only get to spend their own money? How does that stop rich people from just buying elections directly? Unless we want to stop them from spending their own money to express their own personal views, and that’s a case where I don’t think I’m conflating money with speech, I’m conflating “speech” with “speech”.

And what about the newspapers? Do we silence them as well? Do the editorial boards get to keep endorsing the candidates of their choice? Or do they have to rely on silly work-arounds, perhaps offering “report cards” for each candidate on the issues, making it clear that one candidate gets straight “A”s and another nothing but failing marks, but we’re not endorsing anyone! Either way, what’s to stop the wealthy or corporations from buying the newspapers and TV networks (like they haven’t already) and pushing the agenda of their choice (sounds like a pretty foxy idea, wish I had thought of that…)?

So if we can’t shut out the rich and the news, do we only shut out “the lower classes”? That’s what we’ve been trying to avoid, isn’t it? Then perhaps the alternative is to simply allow anyone who wants to donate to contribute as much money as they want, but we put it all into one big pot of money, and then the money gets distributed evenly to anyone who wants some. Aside from the question of “who’s a legitimate candidate” (that’s like defining legitimate rape), even if you managed to answer that you’d end up with money from a dedicated feminist supporting Todd Akin and money from a neo-Nazi going to support Al Sharpton. Public financing of campaigns is basically the same idea only worse: people don’t even get to decide if they want to play (or pay) at all.

The other problem with the “big pot o’ money” approach is the issue of bundling for impact. Sure politicians care what you say, as long as your opinion comes wrapped in a check, and the bigger the check the bigger your opinion, which is what started us down the whole path in the first place. If you don’t believe that, then you should have no problem with rich people and corporations donating as much as they want to any politician at any time, because it doesn’t matter. If you do believe it, then you are faced with the issue of lots and lots of little people trying to get their voices heard individually… or gathering together as one to have some real impact. Sure, the rich people can do the same thing, but they don’t need to, or at least, they don’t have as much need to. So what you end up with is a classic Catch-22: either money doesn’t influence politics, in which case we don’t need laws to stop money from being in politics, or money does influence politics… in which case we don’t need laws to stop money from being in politics. When you hear a politician calling for “getting money out of politics”, it’s usually one of two major choices: an incumbent who benefits over challengers from “campaign finance reform”, or some “outsider candidate” who is having trouble raising money. Like anything else, check the incentives before you go thinking this is altruism or any sense of “for the public good”.

Ever since I can remember, money and politics have gone together like sex and teenagers: “it’s a problem”, “it’s an epidemic”, “it’s ruining our society”, and as far as I can tell from my own limited experience, it’s a non-issue. As best as I can tell the real fear isn’t that people will make a choice they didn’t want to make, or (like this never happened) an uniformed choice, the real concern is that people will make the wrong choice. By what standard? Well, that’s really a matter of opinion, isn’t it? When I hear someone calling for campaign finance reform, what I most often hear them really saying is “other people are idiots but I’m not.”

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5 Comments on “Campaign Silence Reform”

  1. Michael Reinemann says:

    I do feel there is a third way. Ban all political advertising, commercials, signs, pamphlets, newspaper ads, all of it. Have a large debate system that is aired on c-span and PBS, and broadcast over NPR, at the end or beginning of the debate give each candidate 1 minute to state their case or play their spot.

    You can donate, but all it will give you a more stops for speeches, better writers, and a higher budget “debate spot”, but it will take the majority of the money out of politics. As a nice added benefit, we also get rid of almost all negative ads.

    There are a few snags, how do you decide who gets to go to the debate, how do you regulate “editorial news”, and how can you restrict any speech, even if it is generally toxic and a bother. Granted this will never happen because it require politics in America to become about issues and not out buzz.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      But this gets right to the issue of squeezing people who don’t have money out of politics and leaving the ultra-rich to have free reign. Will you shut down the newspaper editorial boards? Will you pull the plug on the cable news networks? How about all the radio channels, plan on banning them too? At what point is regulating political speech in the name of fairness (or a Fairness Doctrine) not a blatant violation of the First Amendment? And if you can’t or won’t do that, what prevents someone like George Soros or Rupert Murdoch from buying all the newspapers, radio networks and television stations they want and simply shaping the debate that way (not that they can’t or don’t already)?

      Beyond that, it also doesn’t touch on the idea that PBS and NPR, being “public” (read: by force) supported, means that anything done there is in fact middle class and poorer citizens supporting views they may (and by definition do) disagree with if you present more than one side. If you don’t, it’s simply totalitarianism. Rich citizens also support it if they don’t find a way out of paying taxes entirely, but as noted above they can still buy other opportunities to speak or just influence politicians in other, more direct ways if not through campaign contributions.

      As far as making politics in America be about issues and not about buzz, good luck with that. The next time it happens will be the first time in over two hundred years.

      • Michael Reinemann says:

        Yep, those are the exact issues I mentioned. But I think the general problem is the question often posed is “How do we keep money out of politics?” when a better question is “How do we keep money from mattering in politics?”

        I don’t have a perfect solution, but as long as we ask questions one-dimensionally we will continue to get the same answers. If we stop trying to find solutions that fit our current political structure, then we will finally find solutions to our current political structure. Most campaign finance reform revolves around the idea that we should just take money out of politics, while keeping the same system, or split money more “fairly” or “openly”.

        Campaign finance reform is all about keeping “bad” money out of politics, This has never worked. Congressmen, senators, and every elected official have one job above all others, get re-elected. As long as money is the road to this, then in lieu of focusing on serving the people, politicians will focus on getting money. I think the way to break this cycle is to make money a non-issue. The best way to do so is up in the air, my idea has some pretty big flaws, but that does not mean the root goal is unattainable.

        TL;DR – If we are against money in politics, we should make money worthless in politics.

      • Bob Bonsall says:

        Again, I can’t find a fault in your general principle for the limited cause, it is the broad application I have concern with. Money is fungible; that’s the problem with campaign finance reform laws already on the books. Can’t give to a candidate directly? Here are a half-dozen ways you can donate to get him re-elected that amount to the same thing. Take all of those away and you get to something much more dangerous, which is how do you stop money from equaling speech in other ways (the heart of the Citizens United ruling)? Unless you are okay with tinkering with or completely repealing the First Amendment, which I believe is a cure worse than the disease.

        Discussing this the other night at home Leigh threw out the idea of making every office one-term only. This would keep any one candidate from worrying about getting re-elected, although it does keep money in politics since they need to get elected in the first place, and political parties would pressure them even more to support the next guy. Plus there’s the old idea that the system has term limits: you’re limited by the number of times you get elected. However, all that aside, I think it has a lot more merit as a system than the cumbersome, convoluted, and broken attempts at controlling campaign spending we have seen.

  2. […] (and one that I favor even more) is to get the money out of the hands of politicians. Now I know I have argued before that money equals speech, and I’m not backing away from that. But note what I said: get the money out of the hands of […]


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