making big donors part of the political debate

Peter Beinart quotes an estimate that $5 billion may be raised from private donors for the 2016 election, much of it coming from extremely rich individuals who are able to keep relatively low profiles. Some of these donors may personally give amounts in the hundreds of millions. Here is a case for forcing them onto the public stage.

On one hand, there is no doubt that their money conveys power. You can’t make a serious run at the White House without raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Barack Obama did comparatively well at raising small contributions, yet (according to our good friends at the Center for Responsive Politics), 68% of his support–almost half a billion dollars–came from “large individual donors” in 2012.

On the other hand, the only true power is the vote, which is distributed to adult citizens equally (leaving aside felony disenfranchisement and a few other exceptions). Billions are spent to persuade voters how to use their power. But voters have the ability not to be persuaded, and they have–collectively–far more persuasive power over their fellow citizens than all the big donors and professional campaigns in America.

So campaign money is both a massive force and a kind of phantom, theoretically susceptible to being ignored and therefore becoming irrelevant.

Of course, there is something romantic and bootless about that latter point. It’s like saying that HIV has no real power because we could all just stop having unprotected sex and the virus would go extinct. Its power is very real because human behavior is predictably imperfect.

Likewise, we could imagine, per Habermas, that the only power becomes the power of the stronger argument. But real people (including me) will miss valid arguments unless they are loudly and repeatedly delivered, and we will accept invalid arguments that are effectively transmitted. Since expensive political communications are generally untrustworthy, it would be better if everyone ignored them all and decided how to vote based on personal discussions and reflections and high-quality news media. But as long as they are pervasive, they will matter.

The question, then, is how to break the spell of money. Beinart has a suggestion. He observes, “Right now, while presidential candidates experience proctological scrutiny from the press, mega-donors experience relatively little. As a result, they wield enormous power over government policy without facing the public glare that, in a democracy, those with great political power should have to endure.” His proposal: the news media should put the mega-donors under close scrutiny, reporting all their statements and positions and financial interests. Then a candidate who takes money from Billionaire X would gain power to communicate but also become associated with the embarrassing personal opinions and interests of the said Billionaire.

This is not a direct strategy for getting people to ignore what money buys. It actually makes money more central (while perhaps discouraging candidates from taking funds from some sources). The reporting that Beinart recommends will encourage ad hominem arguments, i.e., not “You are wrong because your premise is mistaken” but “You are wrong because you took money from a guy who said offensive things.” But once you are using large amounts of money to purchase influence over voters, your motives and goals do become relevant. If campaign spending is “speech,” then a donor is a speaker in the public sphere who can be held to account. And Beinart’s proposed strategy could be a disruptive move that, while it does not create an ideal political conversation, breaks the spell of the current one.

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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.