Alexander Hamilton and James Madison saw this coming. Both spoke eloquently in the Federalist Papers about the corrosive influence of money on the political process. But, sadly, they did not fully foresee the consequences and missed an early chance to propose a solution.
Thus, we are stuck with a fundamental problem, with no clear way to remedy it.
We have to start by going to a very high-level perspective to explain the problem and then simplify it enough to try to get at some possible points of entry to fix it.
Politics is fundamentally a complex process of citizen voters electing people to represent their collective interests in how to tax and spend their hard earned money. That tough and grinding process has been going on for more than 200 years.
It has now begun to collapse of its own weight because the country has become tribalized in such a way that ‘haves’ consistently out-gunned the ‘have nots’. If we stay on that course much longer, it could well lead to a very messy revolution. (The animosity toward the political class that animates many Trump supporters is a measure of deep and dangerous problems.)
To make matters even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that use of money in politics by people and corporations is the equivalent of freedom of expression and speech and therefore cannot, for the most part, be limited or regulated. The consequence of that obviously important (and obviously wrong) ruling has been to amplify a lot the troublesome effects of money in politics — ushering in the age of the billion-dollar presidential campaign, among others — something most of the framers of the Constitution surely never intended, largely because they could not anticipate anything beyond newspapers. The writings of both Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers make that crystal clear.
Since about 1900, with the advent of the now massive federal regulatory process, a continuous grouping and regrouping of American voters into ‘special interest groups’ vying for more tax dollars to support their ‘special interests’ has been accelerating.
Now, many legislators have effectively stopped trying to rationally and intelligently accommodate competing interests in the overall national interest because doing so has often put their reelections in peril. Money and votes tend to flow toward the extremes of the political spectrum rather than the center.
Thus, we see today, a severe breakdown in the central function of representative government – serving the interests of all Americans, not just special interest groups.
Looked at this way, our politics and money problems have begun to collide in unforeseen ways, spurring on what may be a basic unraveling of our political organizations, particularly the two main political parties, which are on the brink of splitting in two. The extreme left and extreme right both want nothing to do with the center left and center right. And, none of those four groups seem able to work with any of the other three. Hence NOTHING is happening. That is a genuine recipe for chaos.
Given the Supreme Court’s view that money equals speech, we cannot readily stanch the flood of money into politics. Instead, we’ll have to find ways to reform the political process to either reduce the influence of money or redirect it toward the center of the political spectrum. Luckily, there are a host of things we can look at and study as possible ways to get at this problem:
- Ranked Choice Voting has been used in several places — Maine and California for starters. Under this system, voters choose several candidates, in order of The candidate with the lowest first-choice votes is eliminated, and candidates who were the second choice of those voters get their votes. The process is repeated until someone secures a majority of votes cast. Ranked choice voting has the possible advantage of requiring an outright majority to win, and thus gives a preference to candidates in the middle of the spectrum. The far-left or -right candidates might be the first choice of a plurality, but likely will be the second choice of far fewer. The method looks like it might elect more Centrist candidates more representative of the majority of voters.
Because money is intended to cultivate influence, its first and foremost priority is backing a winner. If centrist candidates (from both parties) are more likely to emerge victorious, more money should flow to them naturally.
- Address Gerrymandering. Many states have had their Congressional Districts so distorted that many of their citizens have effectively lost their rights to fair representation. Both parties are equally culpable. “Safe” districts – defined as those unlikely to switch parties, regardless of the individual holding the seat – encourage extreme candidates because election outcomes in such districts are often decided in the primary, and primary voters said to be more extreme-oriented than their general election counterparts. Again, money goes where it’s likely to matter, and competitive, non-gerrymandered districts make it more likely the center of the political spectrum thus will become better represented.
- Public Financing for Congressional Races. For many years, presidential candidates accepted limits on their own fundraising in exchange for money funded through an optional $3 “check-off” on tax returns (choosing it did not increase the tax owed). In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to reject public financing, confident (and rightly so) that he could raise far more money outside the system. Given the cost of modern presidential campaigns, it’s unlikely that system will return any time soon. But that model might be more effective at the Congressional level, where members of Congress (particularly Representatives who stand for re-election every two years) are forced to spend hours each day, year round, chasing dollars from interests large and small alike. The average winning Congressional candidate spent $1.3 million in 2016. So, for less than $3 million per district, or $1.3 billion overall, we could dramatically reduce the influence of outside money, AND free up our elected officials to spend more time focused on their jobs, rather than on just keeping their jobs. Similarly, the average winning Senate candidate spent just over $10.4 million in 2016; there are only 100 Senators, though, so the overall cost would be only $2.08 billion or so – and because only a third of Senate seats are contested in each election cycle, that $2.08 billion is incurred over six years! This is a tough road to hoe. How to allocate and award the money is not easy. But it should be doable if the goal is both important and proper.
Those three general ideas deliberately do not target any specific policy issues (because that probably would kill them before arrival). Individually, any of them could somewhat reduce the corrosive influence of money that Madison and Hamilton warned about; collectively, they could dramatically reshape American political campaigns to get representation for a majority of voters.
The one thing that we surely cannot do is nothing. If we simply hope and wait, things will certainly get worse.