The Problem of Too Little Money in Politics

Discussions of money in politics are usually steeped in watery metaphors: The Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision will "open the floodgates" of corporate money, we're told, which will "drown" or "swamp" the voice of ordinary citizens. Skeptics of campaign finance regulation warn that, like damming a river, it will only divert the flow to other channels.

Permit me to extend the soggy simile for just a few lines more: In the case of water, floods and dambreaks make headlines, but far more human suffering and strife is caused by too little water than by an excess of it. And the same is true of political money. While political reformers still sometimes lapse into slogans like, "Get money out of politics," or bemoan the total amount spent, in fact, a scarcity of money for campaigns is a source of far more trouble than an excess is.

To see what I mean, consider two hypothetical political environments. In one, every credible candidate for office is a mini Obama, with fairly easy access to at least enough money (from thousands or millions of small and medium-size contributors) to get her message out. In such a world, no one donor or industry would have that much leverage -- and even the massive inflows of corporate money predicted after Citizens United won't matter much, as long as candidates have enough to get their own message out.

In the other situation, there are very few ordinary contributors, and candidates struggle desperately for enough money to be heard. Under these circumstances, anyone who could raise or give a large amount of money would have huge leverage, wealthy self-financed candidates would have an enormous advantage, and political parties and campaigns would desperately seek tricks and evasions, such as bringing in outside corporate money through independent expenditures.

To reduce the influence of money and of economic inequality on the political process, the goal should be to move away from the situation of scarcity and toward the first scenario -- one in which enough money is available in small, regulated contributions and parties and campaigns aren't desperate for big donors or means of evasion. The good news is that we've been moving in just that direction. The second situation is a good description of American politics in 1996 and 1998 (when the law just finished off by the Supreme Court was devised): Very few people gave money to federal campaigns, voter participation was low, and campaigns found all sorts of techniques, such as "soft money," to bring bigger dollars and corporate money into the system.

But by 2008 -- thanks to the Obama campaign, the Internet (which dramatically reduces the cost of asking for a small contribution), and the real drama of politics -- much had changed. More than 1.2 million people gave more than $200 to a candidate in the 2008 election cycle. (This doesn't count those who donated less. Contributors who give less than $200 aren't officially reported, though Obama claimed 1.7 million.) Independent spending by outside groups played a modest role.

This positive trend suggested a way forward for campaign reform, and by this winter, even some of the authors of the old regulatory approach had embraced the idea that strengthening the value these small contributions – through tax credits, matching funds, or other forms of public financing – would be a better approach than continuing to try to dam the other tributaries into which money flowed.

I remain as enthusiastic as ever about such strategies. But I've started to worry, not because of Citizens United but for another reason: What if the enthusiasm and small-donor miracle of the Obama campaign and 2008 isn't possible again? For one thing, 2007 and 2008 came at the very peak of an economic bubble in which millions of middle-class American households felt wealthier than ever before, through inflated home values and stock portfolios. This "wealth effect" drove purchases of flat-screen TVs and SUVs -- isn't it likely that it also drove some of the decisions to give money to Obama or an appealing congressional candidate? Except for influence-seekers, giving money to a political campaign is an expense with very little reward (not even the psychic good vibe of texting money to Haiti), and it can easily slip down the list of priorities. (And here I apologize to my three friends who are members of Congress facing tough races -- yes, yes, I'll get to it!) Without that wealth effect, is a 3 million-donor campaign possible?

In addition to money being tighter, there is the distinct loss of enthusiasm among both progressives and moderates who supported Obama and other Democrats. Wall Street has shifted its giving to favor Republicans, The New York Times reported on Monday, and the administration's more populist rhetoric is not yet paying off in renewed enthusiasm among the grass roots. (I'm focused here on Democrats in part because conservative Republicans have long had a grass-roots base of smaller donors; the biggest change in recent years was in the rise of a rival Democratic base.) In addition, headline after headline declaring that Citizens United will "open the floodgates" are likely to make small donors think their contributions would be a waste -- throwing good money after bad.

The best thing we can do about Citizens United, then, is to make sure these conditions of scarcity don't prevail, particularly for progressive candidates. In policy terms, this means calling for a system of public financing like that in the bill sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter. But it also would help to have a politics that is capable of generating hope, engagement, and enthusiasm, and an economy that's capable of rebuilding the middle class, to the point where sending a couple hundred dollars to a good political candidate doesn't seem like the very last thing worth doing.

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