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WANG: The overstated sway of campaign funds

Full coffers won’t save pols who defy their constituents

- - Sunday, December 8, 2013

"I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love." So goes the refrain in the classic Beatles hit. The Fab Four were wise beyond their years, and their wisdom could fairly be applied to the perpetual debate about the effect of money on American politics. As the evidence tends to show, not only can't money buy love, it can't buy elections or policy outcomes, either.

The recent government shutdown is a perfect case in point. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post expressed wonderment at how congressional Republicans had bucked the wishes of corporate executives and business groups, who had decried the effects a shutdown would have on companies' bottom lines. "Businesses ... spurned" by the GOP, The Post's headline blared, while The Times declared a "loss of sway" for Corporate America. According to the media's narrative, these supposed patrons of the Republican Party had spent millions of dollars to elect politicians who would do their bidding, and all of that spending was for naught.

Dressed in scholarly robes, the underlying theory is what Harvard professor Larry Lessig calls "dependence corruption." As Mr. Lessig explains in the Harvard Law Review, "Politicians in our system have become dependent upon their funders. Their funders are not 'the people'... and politicians recognize the need to satisfy those funders as a condition to being able to successfully wage their campaigns."

The critical flaw with this notion is that it ignores the two other mainstays of politics, the first of which is ideology. Politicians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who want to do something and those who want to be someone. The two archetypes are not mutually exclusive, of course. However, unless a politician is completely unmotivated by any principles and devoid of any beliefs, it's unlikely that he will simply do whatever the campaign contributors want. Shuttering the government may or may not have reflected good legislative tactics or policy, but it was a stark reminder that principles still reign supreme for a sizable portion of politicians.

The second and more fundamental factor the theory overlooks is the voters — "the people" who Mr. Lessig claims get short shrift in the political calculus. This factor overlaps with the first category because voters have principles and beliefs, too. (Some might even say the voters tend to be more principled than the politicians.) While it may be difficult to get elected without any campaign resources, it's certifiably impossible to get elected without the voters' support (short of rigging the polls). If the politicians aren't enacting policies consistent with their constituents' principles and beliefs, then no amount of campaign spending can overcome the will of the voters.

Mr. Lessig decries the fact that political campaigns are funded by only a tiny sliver of the population, that only a quarter of a percent of the population gives more than $200 to a congressional campaign, and that more than 80 percent of super PAC spending has come from only 196 colossally rich donors. However, Mr. Lessig's numbers actually undermine his notion that campaign contributors hold disproportionate sway over politicians. According to the Elections Project at George Mason University, there are approximately 220 million eligible voters in this country, of whom 40 percent to 58 percent turn out to vote (depending on whether there is a presidential election). The claim that politicians will systematically ignore the concerns of their voting constituents, who still outnumber their contributors by a ratio of more than 100 to one, simply to raise some more campaign cash, defies common sense.

Critics of the effects that political spending has on politicians alternatively train their fire on the influence it has over voters. An editorial in The New York Times recently lamented, "Voters confused by all the dark-money campaign manipulation triggered by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision deserve relief." Thus, the concern about campaign spending really is rooted in the same philosophical divide that underlies so many other policy debates: Whether the people are simply impressionable, easily confused automatons who cannot be left to their own devices, or whether they can be trusted to make their own judgments, taking into consideration (or ignoring) all of the information that's out there.

If voters are likely to be confused by anything, it is the simplistic narrative that money is the only relevant factor in our political system. The theory fails to explain phenomena such as the recent government shutdown and why Americans routinely reject better-funded candidates and issue campaigns, and it impoverishes public understanding of the political process.

Eric Wang is a political-law attorney and a senior fellow with the Center for Competitive Politics.