I received this thoughtful letter (posted with permission) from a writer who prefers to remain anonymous. Thoughts?
Hello Professor Lessig, I’m writing in regards to an observation I have about money in politics. It is that it has become a narrative in the Democratic race that money does not influence politicians. It has been stressed by Democratic politicians like Barney Frank who previously did support the idea that money does indeed influence politicians
But it has occurred to me that people that have been long time party activists (not Washington insiders but people that have staffed, volunteered, and supported political campaigns for candidates at various levels) believe that money does not influence politicians. They find the whole line of reasoning offensive to those that committed time, sweat, and tears for years to get Democrats elected. Also to the staffers of the members of Congress.
They believe that money does corrupt the system in that it gives a monetary advantage to those with political views matching the donors. Since the views of wealthy donors more closely align with the Republicans, the Republicans have the unfair advantage. While that is true, that position denies that the Democratic party has shifted to get closer to the “sweet spot” for donor money, and also denies that political positions or decisions are influenced by the money in any way. (The GOP isn’t influenced by donors they just happen to have the same or similar positions as the donors.)
I can certainly understand the feeling of someone that has worked a long time in politics being offended at the notion that the candidates they have supported are corrupt in someway. Well more accurately the system is corrupt and the “corruption” of the politicians is an inevitable byproduct of the incentive structure. Merely pointing out the perverse incentive structure is not enough to prove that money influences politicians. Nor is giving examples since it’s impossible to know for certain whether a politician’s decision was influenced by donors or lobbyists. Take Hillary Clinton’s bankruptcy bill vote for example, a logical argument can be made that her votes had nothing to do with campaign contributors.
It’s hard to point to concrete definitive examples of money in politics influencing the decisions, we can only point to the effects.
I’m of the opinion though that asking for specific examples isn’t the right approach in holding government accountable. If we have a perverse incentive structure and there are inadequate checks and balances on that structure, we can not assume that people are super-humans and not influenced by the system. We do have to assume that the money is influencing people.
My fear is not so much as Hillary Clinton possibly being influenced by money, but that the narrative that money in politics does not influence politicians is being promoted by the Democratic party and is being accepted as true by a majority of the electorate. The idea that money influences politicians and the parties has been put before the American public and has been rejected. That has the effect of making initiatives to get money out of politics be opposed not just by the “establishment” but by the rank and file. I think that is very dangerous for our country.
I wonder what your thoughts are on how to counteract that. I think winning over people that are active in the political process on board with movements like Wolfpac or MayDay Pac is critical for the movements success.
Thank you very much for your time.
I do fear we’ve backed ourselves into a position where we Democrats can’t press politic$ powerfully enough. Reactions?
Well I would propose describing the happenings as a “natural selection”-like process, where politicians whose worldviews and ideologies match-up with those of wealthy and moneyed donors tend to be funded more in Washington, than those who don’t.
(Whether or not said politicians “pivoted” their political positions or not, and whether or not they did so with the most noble or with the most banal of background motives).