what should an individual citizen do about money in politics?

(New York City): I am on a Washington-New York-Boston trip in which many of my meetings coincidentally touch on the same topic: what should we do about money in politics? Per my usual rant, the question is not what should be done. That is relatively easy. The question is: What should you and I do, granting that courts and legislatures are not going to do what should be done?

This is a question not only for you and for me, but also for the national organizations that work on this topic, such as my beloved first employer, Common Cause (now under the dynamic and visionary leadership of Miles Rapoport). Such organizations can communicate with the public and can enroll members, but ultimately they must ask citizens to do stuff. What should they ask?

They can’t just ask people to change their minds. Public opinion is at the heart of some problems. For example, climate change is worse because many voters do not believe it is happening, do not consider it a serious threat, or doubt that we can realistically do anything about it. Motivation is also a factor, because individuals, communities, and nations benefit by generating the problem (in this case, carbon emissions), and anyone who takes individual or collective action to limit pollution bears the price of that action. Climate change is thus the Mother of All Collective Action Problems, made worse by false opinions (which, in turn, result from targeted investments in misinformation). It is worth changing people’s minds to believe the facts and to vote and act differently.

Campaign finance is a different kind of problem. The public already thinks it’s terrible. Most people do not contribute to the problem, since only 0.18% of the population gives $200 or more. But it is against the interest of the majority of elected officials to do anything about money in politics, since they were elected under the current system. Democratic politicians tend to be more hypocritical than Republicans on this topic; neither party does anything about it, but some Republicans would defend the status quo on philosophical grounds.

Hobson, who offered one particular horse or none at all, and called that a choice.

Voters are typically offered a Hobson’s Choice: Vote for Candidate A–who shares your views on important issues like climate change but won’t do anything about campaign finance–or vote for Candidate B, who opposes your views of those other essential issues and won’t do anything about campaign finance.

I think that to some extent, politicians also face a Hobson’s Choice because of the recalcitrance of all the other politicians, a classic collective action problem. They can A) burn their capital trying to pass campaign finance reform, or B) actually pass health insurance reform, Wall Street reform, and environmental laws. Basically, my reading of President Obama is that he chose option B.

We would like everyone (voters and politicians) to change their priorities and put campaign finance reform higher–but in order to do what?

Well, there are things you can do. Join Common Cause, because it’s a robust membership organization that fights indefatigably for reform. Give money to Mayday PAC, which will intervene in “five districts during this election cycle, in a way that makes it clear that the most important issue was the role that money plays in politics.” Donate to Fund for the Republic, too. Tell your elected officials, even if they stand with you on other issues, that they risk losing your support unless they sign onto something like H.R. 20, the Government by the People Act.

I think these are worthy steps, but I am not overly optimistic they will work even if quite a few people do them. That is why I am obsessed with the problem of leverage, or how to turn ethical civic action into large-scale change in a given system of incentives and constraints, against dedicated opponents. After all, Margaret Mead was wrong: we should doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. They usually fail–or grow into a large group, maybe achieve something, and cease to be thoughtful and committed along the way. We must turn from a bunch of citizens who are angry about the status quo (and who perhaps take some modest actions) into an effective mass movement. That is a problem of organization and structure that I do not think we have cracked.

The Mayday PAC widget:

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.