Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Politics of Money in Politics

The recent announcement that Lawrence Lessig was exploring the idea of running for president raises two interesting issues. First, the principal reasoning behind his interest in running for president, in that he feels that present system of democracy in the United States has been flawed for some time now and feels other methods have not produced desired results at remedying these flaws. As Mr. Lessig tells it these flaws are largely born of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010, which changed the political environment to basically allow for an infinite amount of money to influence the democratic process in every election. Due to this new influx of money a number of individuals, including Mr. Lessig, believe that the inherent principal nature of power equality that is representative of an indirect democracy has been lost resulting in the very real possibility that democracy in the United States could transition into an oligarchy.

Mr. Lessig’s concern about this issue is so significant that it raises the second issue, the very nature of his tenure as President. For Mr. Lessig the importance of maintaining democracy should exceed everything else, but he believes, and justifiably so, that the existing field of presidential hopefuls will be unable to exclusively focus on this issue as they would have a number of other domestic and foreign policy issues to addresses as well. Thus, Mr. Lessig’s candidacy and resultant presidency is similar to that of a referendum. His entire platform is that he will devote the entire focus and power of the his presidency to ensuring the maintenance of democracy, which will largely involve eliminating the mass influx of money into the political process either through the repeal of the Citizens United ruling or another method. After accomplishing this goal Mr. Lessig would resign as President leaving the remainder of his term to his Vice President.

The more important of these two issues is whether or not Mr. Lessig is correct to view the unlimited influx of money into the political process as a chief threat to democracy. The trademark notion of a democracy is “one person one vote” implying equal influence from all voting parties regardless of position or standing. There has been no change in this practice regardless of the level of money committed to a given election cycle. However, some would argue that the evolution of the political system in the United States has created an environment where any elected position of significant consequence demands a large amount of money to purchase advertisement and conduct other publicity activities in order to have a reasonable chance at winning. This monetary demand places an additional motivational incentive on potential candidates to abide by the wishes of those that have the ability to donate large sums of money at multiple instances. Also a greater influx of money may influence the candidate pool keeping individuals that might otherwise run for a position from doing so under the belief that they could not raise enough money to be competitive.

So the question boils down to how much of an influence does money have on the ability of an individual to be elected in a given political race? Clearly there have been no significant cases of individuals literally selling their votes, that is an arrangement being made between a voter and a supporter of candidate A that said voter will vote for candidate A for 50 dollars. Therefore, if money is not used to directly “purchase” votes, what purpose does it serve in an election? The principal purpose of money in an election is to maximize information distribution for a given candidate. Basically the real advantage of candidate A having more money than candidate B is that it allows candidate A to take advantage of the interest and time limitations possessed by the electorate.

For example instead of depending on a potential voter taking the initiative to look up the official position of candidate A on issue Y, spending money allows candidate A and his/her supporters to present the position of candidate A on issue Y directly to the voter via some form of media advertising be it television/radio/print/Internet or via direct interaction with a candidate A supporter. In addition to significantly increasing the odds of potential voters knowing the position of candidate A on issue Y, the fact that candidate A and his/her supporters are creating the delivery mechanism of the information allows them to frame the information in such a way that if desired the core message could be prone to misinterpretations or even outright lies that favor candidate A. This action can also be used against competitors framing their positions in such a way that could make them less attractive to voters.

The next question is how important is this information capacity in an election? This issue has two different parts: first, how valuable is information in an election and second, how much information is available? Starting with the second issue first, in the Internet era for modern developed countries there is little ability to “bottleneck” information or control the information stream. Gone are the days when someone could simply spend enough money or favors to shutout another candidate’s message altogether. The principal advantage of money with respects to this second issue is the ability to saturate information on all forms of delivery systems: television, radio, Internet, hiring people to “spread the word” in public areas, etc. However, money is not the limiting factor controlling the actual ability to distribute information, it simply allows for the more efficiency spread of that information.

Even though money is not a limiting factor controlling the basics of information distribution in a political campaign, is it a critical factor that can dramatically increase the probability of winning? This question is the central question in the first issue of the importance of information capacity: how valuable is information? The value of information in a political election is almost exclusively associated with its ability to produce votes for the candidate. Voters will not vote for candidate A based on two central elements: 1) the voter does not have information pertaining to candidate A either as a person and/or political position; 2) the voter’s political values and/or social values are significantly different from those of candidate A.

In the first scenario the value of information is important for on the most basic level (not taking into consideration the specific characterizations of the candidate and the potential voters) there is a greater likelihood of an individual voting for candidate A if they are known versus voting for candidate A if they are not known. While it is certainly possible that a voter will not vote for candidate A after learning of their political/social values, it is also possible that they will vote for candidate A. Therefore, the behavior of the voter changes from a base low value (typically involving whether or not the individual will vote in the first place) to either a slightly lower value (disagreement with newly understood positions of candidate A) or significantly higher (agreement with the newly understood positions of candidate A). Overall it makes sense to inform voters regarding the important positions and traits of candidate A both logically and practically.

However, it must be noted that the importance of expelling anonymity is inversely proportional to the scope of the election because of the validity of that anonymity. Basically if candidate A is running for a position on the School Board for Smith country there is a good possibility that candidate A will be unfamiliar to a number of potential voters because the perceived importance and scope of that position is small, thus information about candidate A is important to dispel that lack of knowledge. On the other hand if candidate A is running for one of the two U.S. Senate positions representing the state of California, it is highly unlikely that potential voters will be unaware of the important elements, both political and social, representing candidate A. Note that social elements must be included when discussing information distribution because a number of voters vote not on the political issues supported by a candidate, but on whether or not they like the candidate, which could have little to do with the candidate’s political positions.

In the second scenario there is little money can do to produce votes for candidate A. If voter y is aware of the political positions and social standing of candidate A and his/her personal viewpoints are in opposition to candidate A’s positions then further information distribution is basically a waste of resources. The immediate question regarding the above statement is why does the distribution of counter information have such little influence that it can be so readily considered a waste of resources?

There are two significant reasons for the above statement:

1) In recent years, in large part thanks to a loud and more radicalized Conservative movement and to a lesser extent similar Progressive movement, voters in general have become much more polarized on a wide breadth of political issues creating a hostile environment to ideas that run counter these opinions, thereby further limiting an already small group of “convincible” middle-ground of potential voters. In fact there are even more party-line voters and single-issue voters that have mindsets so etched in stone that even if valid empirical evidence suggests that mindset is not accurate they ignore that empirical evidence. Basically in general there are more individuals who are less likely to even listen to a viewpoint that opposes their personal viewpoint, let alone debate the fine points of either viewpoint, than there have been in the past;

2) Political insidiousness and desire for retaining power has resulted in gerrymandering various Congressional districts, which has also been indirectly related to the general break of diversity within a number of established communities creating more homogenous neighborhoods leading to the production of group-think single party voting blocs. Due to the presence of these voting blocs it is very difficult for opposing ideas to establish any meaningful foothold, especially due to the greater polarization of political environments as mentioned in reason one. These areas are a significant reason behind why winning percentages are so high for incumbents.

The above discussion produces an interesting question for Mr. Lessig’s position that the potential influence of unlimited money is the principal threat to the equality of democracy (i.e. a representative democracy that represents each person equally). If theoretically money has no direct influence and little indirect influence on acquiring votes and in practice political science studies have produced conflicting results on the total value of money in an election, can the potential influence of unlimited money in elections really be viewed as the principal threat to democracy?

Another concern with studying the issue of corruption via money is what process is used to determine whether a lawmaker is simply voting on their personal ideals (candidate A voting in favor of tax breaks for corporation W because he (stupidly) believes in the validity of supply-side economics), versus whether he is voting against his ideals to fulfill the Faustian bargain to a corporation (corporation W donated 1.5 million dollars to his previous campaign and plans to donate another 1.5 million to his next, so he votes in favor of tax breaks for corporation W)? This important issue is rarely addressed when discussing money and its potential corrupting influence in politics.

Overall one could argue that the genuine problem with money in politics is that the money is being wasted for minimal advantage advertising instead of being spent on improving the domestic economy through investment or charitable donations. Perhaps the false perception of the advantage of money in politics is the real problem not the actual influence of money. For example Mr. Lessig and others that share his position have noted that it takes significantly more money to be elected to a given position of government now than it did decades ago, but is this statement actually valid? For example typically statements like that do not correct for inflation or how increases in population have increased the perceived advantage for more money, which would be a “natural” occurrence. Also there have been a number of races where candidate A has defeated candidate B despite candidate B outspending candidate A by 5, 6 or even 10x.

However, for the sake of argument assume for the moment that Mr. Lessig’s point about the dangers of money is accurate. The next concern for Mr. Lessig is what can be done about it? If elected president Mr. Lessig would only have the power of the Executive branch of government in which to act against the Citizens United ruling, a branch that has little to no real power to produce the type of change that Mr. Lessig desires. One could argue that his election would produce a “mandate” to challenge the Citizens United ruling, but what real power would this challenge have?

First, the idea of “mandates” are really only political theater anyways for in the past there was some level of concession by the opposing political party with the acknowledgement that “the will/voice of the people” had spoken and it would be inappropriate to obstruct the plans of the new administration and/or Congress out of petty spite. Of course that was then, the political climate now has certainly revealed that petty spite is fashionable. Mr. Lessig is certainly aware that the Republican Party, which has taken advantage of this new environment more so than the Democratic Party, would be his main legislative opposition to accomplishing his goal? Simply “invoking” the “mandate” of his election will not be sufficient to make them allies or have them “fall in line”.

Second, even if Congress did act against the Citizens United ruling, what could it do that would not be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court by the proponents of the ruling? It stands to reason that the current existing U.S. Supreme Court would overturn any legislative action that sought to weaken the “freedoms” granted by the Citizens United ruling. It has already demonstrated this motivation to some extent in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock rejecting a Montana state law that limited corporate campaign contributions even after the Montana State Supreme Court ruled that the law was narrowly tailored enough that it withstood strict scrutiny.

Realistically it appears that at the moment only two things will allow for the restriction of excessive amounts of money from the political system. First, a change in the political ideology of the U.S. Supreme Court and a re-evaluation of the legal structure of the Citizens United ruling regarding the potential for corruption in the political system due to the influx of money resulting in this new Supreme Court overturning the Citizens United ruling, similar to how Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Second, a new Constitutional Amendment explicitly addressing the issues associated with the Citizens United ruling, with the most popular type of amendment eliminating the ability of a corporation to be considered a “person” in the context of free speech. Outside of these two strategies, what can be done? Mr. Lessig’s emphasis about the advantage of focus, limiting money being the only issue behind his presidency, has little meaning for it is not a limiting factor in accomplishing his goal; the issue cannot be solely resolved by effort and trying hard. The limiting factor is the probability of success associated with the limited number of available strategies.

Another concern is the idea that a single-minded focused mandate, which the election of Mr. Lessig would represent, can be established solely because polling information report that 80% - 85% of those polled, with little difference between political affiliations, believe that the potential of unlimited money in the political system is a big problem or “rigs the system”. Unfortunately, something the environmental movement is intimately familiar with is that just because a vast majority thinks a certain way in isolation does not mean that same majority is willing to work to accomplish that viewpoint. Basically while 80% of those polled consistently want money out of politics, how important is it to them to accomplish that goal, i.e. will they prioritize removing money from politics over various other economic issues, foreign policy issues, environmental issues, etc?

As it currently stands based on previous actions, these respondents and potential voters appear to think the removal of money from politics is not very important because where are the droves of candidates making the removal of money from politics their number one campaign issue because it is so important to their constituents and will dramatically increase the probability of getting them elected? Basically if so many people think that money is rigging the system and that resultant corruption is of the utmost importance to address, there should be no difficulty finding numerous candidates that will vote to eliminate money from the political process on the most stringent level allowed by law versus tying their ideals to the pocketbook of corporation y or donor z. Clearly, and unfortunately, this is not the case. On its face it appears that Mr. Lessig has fallen into the typical single-issue trap of thinking that because the issue is very important to him, it must also be, guaranteed without question, very important to a lot of other people.

Some could argue that an important response is to increase the power of transparency in the contribution system by disallowing individuals to make anonymous donations, produce anonymous pitch material, etc. The general idea behind this belief appears to be that through the creation of a political environment where individuals that donate large sums of money must make those donations in a completely transparent manner and those that use the money must outline how it was used it, the probability of immoral actions will be reduced significantly limiting the overall negative influence of money in politics.

The problem with this strategy is that it does not address the saturation mindset. It stands to reason that most people believe that all candidates are taking money from some form of special interest and/or large corporate donors (even the small third party ones regardless of whether or not they actually are), so no candidate is “clean”. Some could counter-argue that if potential voters are made aware of monetary donations and expenditures then they could seek out candidates who have received no money or significantly less money and characterize those candidates as “not beholden to special interests”. The concern with this reasoning is that receipt of donated money becomes a single issue. It is difficult to envision a scenario where an individual votes against a candidate that shares his/her viewpoint on a wide variety of issues if it is revealed that the candidate has taken a lot of money from special interest groups.

Therefore, ‘taking money from special interest groups’ will be regarded as just one of many issues that is considered by a voter when deciding on which candidate to vote for. Unfortunately due to the fact that messaging and access is heavily influenced by money it seems very probable that very few candidates will refrain from taking special interest money when available to them, regardless of any transparency requirements. If this scenario comes to pass then with every viable candidate feeling it necessary to take money, the previous public psychological assertion become true: everyone is taking money, everyone is dirty, thus it does not matter who takes money. Certainly establishing transparency should be done because it is a logical and fair idea and will help increase the probability of more complete information profiles on candidates for potential voters; however, without offering an effective way to remove money from the system, it is unlikely that any transparency strategy will have any real positive effect regarding money in the political system.

Another option put forth by Mr. Lessig, among other parties with other systems, is the idea of Democracy Vouchers where tax rebates to a certain value (currently $50) are reserved for the exclusive donation to a certain political campaign or issue. The belief is that by resorting to a law of scales, volume will be able to cancel out the influence of the high value low volume donor class, which is viewed as the chief problem in the system. Unfortunately this type of plan is flawed in numerous ways. The chief flaws have already been discussed in a previous post here. Another potential flaw in Mr. Lessig’s personal idea is that because the vouchers are tax-based there would be some question to whether or not individuals who do not pay taxes would also receive the $50 or be shutout. If they were shutout then clearly such a program would not be living up to Mr. Lessig’s idea of an equal representational democracy.

Overall the idea of attempting to defeat “bad money” with “good money” be it from the public or from “good PACs”, etc) is rather foolish because of issues regarding sustainability in that what government programs get cut each year due to the loss of billions of dollars returned to the public to “invest” in politics and simple practicality for the polarization of politics have heavily limited the coordinated influence of volume politics. For example in its initial attempt to influence the political landscape in 2014 Mr. Lessig’s personal Super PAC, Mayday, was a significant failure. Basically plans like Brennan Center-Democracy 21 Federal financing and Democracy Vouchers a more likely to exacerbate the problem of money in politics, not act as a “correcting” force if they do anything at all.

On a side note while the idea of a “referendum president” is somewhat interesting, its general characterization can be looked upon more as a novelty than anything significant especially because without a definitive timeline for when the resignation would take place, voter decision-making becomes complicated. For example it is concerning to think how a “referendum president” would handle a catastrophic domestic or foreign event? Would the Vice-President simply handle those potential events? Who would foreign leaders interact with when addressing foreign policy? Etc.

Overall the idea of removing money from politics in effort to ensure a fair democracy and minimize corruption does not appear to be an effective battle strategy to ensure these characteristics. The concern is both the ability to remove money and whether or not money is actually a real problem. A fair and effective democracy is served by three essential elements: voting access, informed voters and voting power. In this country none of these elements are at what one could say “full strength”.

The first element to a fair and effective democracy is ensuring appropriate voting access where the requirements one must meet to be eligible to vote are fair, universally applied and transparent. Unfortunately this simple requirement is not being met by a number of regions; instead these areas are attempting to circumvent fairness by forcing individuals to acquire some form of governmental issue photo identification at personal cost under the false pretense of preventing voter fraud. Such unnecessary and frivolous demands are much more dangerous to a fair and effective democracy than potential unlimited money because it directly influences who can vote.

The second element to an effective democracy is ensuring an informed and motivated electorate. Recall that the principal role money plays is information exchange. Therefore, the best way to make money irrelevant is to create an informed and committed electorate invalidating the purpose of money. The point of a representative democracy is that voters who vote for the winner feel that their viewpoints are being presented and fought for in the appropriate governmental body. The influence of money is only negative when that expectation is not met; when those who have voted for the winner do not have their elected official arguing in favor of their viewpoints instead that elected official is arguing in favor for viewpoints that contrast or are not important those of the majority at the behest of a wealthy donor minority.

The best way to expose this betrayal of duty is an informed and committed electorate, one that knows what they want out of their elected official(s), not one that simply holds on to old ideas and/or votes a single-party ticket solely because the candidate has a certain letter besides their name on the ballot. If the electorate does not choose to inform themselves then it is difficult to judge whether or not money is corrupting the process; however, the electorate must be given tools to access the appropriate information. Therefore, candidates must be obligated to produce information packages regarding important issues and their stances on those issue that can be distributed via mail, posted online or with existing hard copies at government buildings and libraries. A guaranteed information source will allow voters to inform themselves in a non-bias or “spin” manner.

The third element to a fair and effective democracy is currently the one most lacking of the three. Unfortunately there is a significant lack of honesty and logic in the political process, which significantly hinders the total expression of voting power. For example a politician can make statement A to the public, but actually support an opposing position and as long as the public is not able to discover that opposing belief in time, the politician can be elected on a basis of false pretenses. This reality is especially relevant when the position of a corporation and large political donor may be in direct contrast with the position of the general public. How can voting have any real power when a politician can simply lie about his/her position until elected?

Some would argue that if an elected official lies about what they would seek to accomplish the only real response is that the public takes the philosophy of “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” and when the individual comes up for re-election vote him/her out of office. However, what type of display of power is that? Lie and get some number of years of guaranteed elected office? How is that fair and just? Therefore, what type of process can be used to sort out false statements? Should each candidate be expected to produce a “beliefs” contract that if deviated from once elected would produce just cause for termination from that position? If this occurred what would be the process for the candidate to change his/her opinion on an issue if a mistake in reasoning was discovered? It stands to reason that a new system is needed for clearly the existing process of recall is not sufficient to ensure the power and wishes of the majority of the electorate.

Overall the potential candidacy of Mr. Lessig for President of the United States appears inherently questionable because the methodology Mr. Lessig supports for removing money from politics is unclear and the most plausible options are either not viable or are not significantly aided by Mr. Lessig being President. Incidentally attempting to remove money from politics through a direct “limitation” by neutralizing the Citizens United ruling seems very difficult at this point in time and without any real probability of success any attempt would result in wasted effort and resources. Instead of attempting to neutralize money through its forced removal or by countering it with even more money, focusing on neutralizing the influence of money through voter empowerment and ensuring voter influence should be a more viable way of facilitating a legitimate, fair and effective democracy.

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