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Money and Politics in the Age of Trump

The 2016 election result came as a surprise to many, and it calls for some honest reflection. When it comes to money in politics, here are a few questions we ought to be asking.

November 11, 2016

Cross-posted on Huff­ing­ton Post

Earlier this week millions of Amer­ic­ans woke up with the polit­ical hangover of a life­time. After one of the most vitri­olic campaigns in polit­ical history, and despite losing the popu­lar vote, the bombastic billion­aire Donald J. Trump had ridden a wave of anger at the polit­ical estab­lish­ment to be elec­ted the 45th pres­id­ent of the United States.

Trump’s victory has profound implic­a­tions for a whole host of issues. Not the least of these is the struc­ture of our demo­cracy, includ­ing the role of money in polit­ics. While the issue of voter suppres­sion rightly got the most atten­tion in the lead-up to Novem­ber 8, Trump’s win — and with it the chance to appoint the next Supreme Court justice (and maybe more) — also looks like a big setback for those who want more robust campaign finance laws. Even before Elec­tion Day, moreover, the success of Trump’s media-driven campaign was fuel­ing the idea that polit­ical spend­ing just does­n’t matter that much.

On both counts, campaign finance reformers defin­itely have some soul-search­ing to do. But the story isn’t so simple. Big money polit­ics may not have enabled Trump’s rise in the conven­tional sense, but it still plays a pivotal role in Amer­ican elec­tions, espe­cially in down-ballot races. And it is the domin­ance of our polit­ical system by wealthy elites that helped to fuel the deep well of frus­tra­tion that Trump harnessed so effect­ively to power his campaign

We will be study­ing what happened for years to come, but let’s start with the obvi­ous: Trump may be a (self-described) billion­aire, but he won despite having less campaign money — a lot less. While we won’t know the complete fundrais­ing totals until next Janu­ary, it appears Hillary Clin­ton’s campaign and support­ive outside groups outraised Trump and his groups by almost 2–1. The fundrais­ing discrep­ancy between Trump and his primary oppon­ents was even greater. A lot of that anti-Trump money paid for high-priced attack ads of ques­tion­able value. This shows that, espe­cially at the pres­id­en­tial level, the money race is not always outcome-determ­in­at­ive. It matters not just how much you raise, but how you spend it. And media cover­age can allow even a relat­ively under-funded candid­ate to main­tain a high profile.

Of course, even Trump benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in spend­ing — so money wasn’t irrel­ev­ant. More import­antly, the pres­id­ency is not the only office in the land. In fact, given their scale and level of media satur­a­tion, modern pres­id­en­tial campaigns are strik­ingly differ­ent from most down-ballot races. There is reams of evid­ence indic­at­ing that Citizens United and related court cases allow­ing unlim­ited campaign spend­ing have actu­ally had the most direct impact on elect­oral and policy outcomes at the state and local level, in races that get far less atten­tion, where even a compar­at­ively small infu­sion of cash (say $100,000 rather than $1 million) can make a big differ­ence. Trump’s surprise victory does noth­ing to detract from that real­ity.

Still, you might ask, does any of this really matter? At a time when so much is at stake, focus­ing on the ins and outs of campaign finance regu­la­tion may feel like the defin­i­tion of losing the forest for the trees.

The prob­lem with this critique is that it ignores perhaps the single most power­ful dynamic at play in the 2016 campaign, namely the disdain so many Amer­ic­ans of all ideo­lo­gical stripes feel toward an economic and polit­ical system that isn’t work­ing for them. Those feel­ings anim­ated not only Trump’s support­ers, but also those of Clin­ton’s primary oppon­ent, Bernie Sanders. It’s likely they also had a hand in the decision of millions of eligible voters not to vote.

This wide­spread disen­chant­ment feeds off a sense that polit­ics is a game for the wealthy and connec­ted, who direct govern­ment policy to further their own interests. Over­whelm­ing major­it­ies, includ­ing 80 percent of Repub­lic­ans, say there is “too much money in polit­ics.” And with money comes influ­ence — more than ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans think they can ever hope to wield.

This is why on Tues­day campaign finance reform initi­at­ives passed not only in blue coastal enclaves, but also deep-red places like South Dakota. Trump himself has made state­ments crit­ical of Citizens United (even if his intent to follow through on them is at best ques­tion­able).

None of this lets reform advoc­ates off the hook, however. The 2016 elec­tion result came as a surprise to many, and it calls for some honest reflec­tion. When it comes to money in polit­ics, here are a few ques­tions we ought to be asking:

First, how can we do more to chan­nel campaign resources toward insti­tu­tions that can actu­ally foster the better governance Amer­ic­ans plainly want? One idea is to pass meas­ures that help to both strengthen and, crit­ic­ally, demo­crat­ize polit­ical parties. Party organ­iz­a­tions used to be the primary engines of grass­roots citizen mobil­iz­a­tion. As the organ­iz­ing force behind broad polit­ical coali­tions, they also fostered the sort of flex­ib­il­ity and open­ness to comprom­ise neces­sary to govern­ing. But in recent decades, the parties, while still possess­ing potent brand names, have been eclipsed by indi­vidual candid­ates and, more recently, super PACs and other outside groups who can raise unlim­ited funds under Citizens United. Strin­gent campaign finance laws focused on root­ing out party-related corrup­tion have argu­ably exacer­bated that trend. Completely dereg­u­lat­ing party fundrais­ing is not the answer, but there are a vari­ety of other reforms that could bolster the parties’ abil­ity to bring citizens into the polit­ical process while moder­at­ing the most extreme tend­en­cies of both voters and office­hold­ers. These include small donor public finan­cing, which can boost parti­cip­a­tion and improve the qual­ity of govern­ment by bring­ing more diverse voices into the polit­ical process, as it has in New York City.

Second, has the single-minded focus on “corrup­tion” been counter-product­ive? Prevent­ing corrup­tion and its appear­ance are the only justi­fic­a­tions the Supreme Court has ever recog­nized for most campaign finance limits. Even advoc­ates who disagree with the Court’s juris­pru­dence have tended to follow its lead by adopt­ing the narrow corrup­tion frame in making their case to the public. But the notion that Amer­ican polit­ics is pervas­ively corrupt — that, as Trump repeated so often on the campaign trail, “the system is rigged” — may exacer­bate the very public cynicism and anger that has made actual govern­ing so diffi­cult. Corrup­tion is certainly a real prob­lem, but advoc­ates should consider making the case for their propos­als more in terms of the posit­ive demo­cratic ideals they further rather than the negat­ive effects they prevent.

Finally, we should also be asking how campaign finance reform relates to the broader constel­la­tion of propos­als to create a demo­cracy that works for every­one. So many aspects of the 2016 elec­tion are deeply troub­ling, includ­ing docu­mented voter suppres­sion, the ongo­ing effects of partisan gerry­man­der­ing, and — at least for some — the fact that the winner of the popu­lar vote lost the elect­oral college for the second time in under two decades. They call for solu­tions rooted in the same values of fair­ness, account­ab­il­ity, and inclu­sion that anim­ate the strongest campaign finance reform ideas. It would be a great mistake to silo the latter from the broader push for a more just and equit­able polit­ical system.

These are just a few of the many ques­tions worth ponder­ing in the wake of the 2016 elec­tion. The road ahead is not one that many of us expec­ted, and it will not be easy. But it is the one we are on, and the stakes could not be higher.

(Photo: Think­stock)