A recent article in the New York Times titled “Technology Leaders Endorse Effort to Overhaul Campaign Finance,” reports that a group technology leaders and venture capitalists have come together to endorse an overhaul of the State of New York’s campaign finance system. The group is urging Governor Cuomo to pass public financing legislation modeled after the current program in NYC . The system provides matching funds to candidates that attract small dollar donations. The authors argue elections are “dominated by a small group of affluent campaign donors, professional influence-peddlers and deep-pocketed vested special interests” and “more often than not, big money gets its way.”
The rhetorical denouncement of “special interests” is popular in both parties, and the reason is clear: it is antithetical to the notion of the “common interest” that underlies the foundation of our democracy. Walter Lippmann once said that in American politics, the “public interest” can be likened to an all-powerful, “god-like” conception. In this case, the authors seek to strengthen the public interest by implementing a system they argue will reduce undue influence of big business, enhance participation, and strengthen democracy.
The reality is that the average person will never contribute to a political campaign, even if their funds are matched. The percent of Americans that do contribute is quite small. While the intent among reformers is to balance some of the disparities that exist between the wealthy and less wealthy in society, what they will in fact be doing is balancing the disparity within one small part of society: the universe of political contributors. A matching system would grant “enhanced representation” to a specific group, in this case, politically-motivated yet resource-poor contributors.
The example they note is NYC system, and yet in the most recent mayoral election of 2009, NYC witnessed the lowest voter turnout its had since the 1960’s. Still, there may be inherent value in decreasing the wealth and power disparity within the universe of contributors by empowering small dollar donors. What effect will this have? One key characteristic that distinguishes high dollar donors from low dollar donors (in both parties) is that low dollar contributors are more ideological and partisan. Thus it is not unreasonable to question whether empowering the universe of small donors could lead to higher levels of polarization. Polarization of course, is one of the main reasons why public confidence in government among Americans is so low, as the authors note.
All this is not to suggest that reform should be abandoned, or that small dollar contributors should be marginalized; quite the opposite. It is a call to abandon rhetoric that depicts money in politics as inherently evil, and public financing solutions as inherently good. Lippmann was on to something when he referred to the public interest as god-like, because like a god, the public interest is not an empirical entity. It is impossible to know what an unbiased system would look. The group noted here, for example, includes venture capitalists and CEOs of companies including Foursquare, Gilt, Etsy, Meetup, Twitter, Tumblr, and others. Ironically if they are successful, they will have provided one more data point to their key complaint, which is that big money tends to get its way.
In order to avoid these inevitable contradictions, reformers should focus their efforts on procedure, and on actual effects that reform will have on how campaigns operate. They need to clearly link how rule X leads to outcome Y and has Z detrimental implications. Without concrete examples, no amount of decrying “the evil of money in politics,” even after a substantial change in the dynamics of money in politics like Citizens United, is going to incite public support.