The still fresh McCutcheon v FEC Supreme Court decision, like the January 2010 Citizens United, has again set off the rage of activists and reformers—who call it nothing less than the privatization of government or the end of the republic! Indeed, removing aggregate contribution limits does for individual donors what Citizens United did for corporations years earlier, make it easier to influence elections. Yet, the apocalyptic cries, however comprehensible, are largely misdirected anger and misguided strategy. Since Citizens United, there have been fervent movements to “get money out of politics” from Movement to Amend (to overrule the case by Constitutional Amendment) to Lawrence Lessig’s Rootstrikers petition (to enact tough campaign finance laws and promote a government-funded option). The idea, remove large campaign donations and see saner policies and better government follow, seems plausible enough. But let’s parse the obvious. Citizens United did not cause the predominance of money in American politics; it is but a symptom of it.
Both election data and opinion polls show no significant differences in outcomes or policies before and after 2010. The reforms overruled in these cases began in 1971, (1907 depending on how one counts) and were revised half a dozen times to make them “tougher,” but they never prevented the reality, or perception, of donor dominance over both Parties and Congress.
More importantly, even if the rules gutted by McCutcheon and Citizens United had been effective against the influence of big money in campaigns, they still would not have made elections free or equitable in any meaningful sense. There are many ways beyond campaign contributions that wealth influences government, and elections, as we will see, have bigger troubles altogether.
The loud protests, especially on the left, focused only on campaign finance miss the deeper issues and alienate potential allies—yes, libertarians like the Tea Party who would also scorn elites. The protests are wrong-headed because they attempt to empower the people by silencing the wealthy. This is both foolish and undesirable.