One of the emerging big stories of the 2016 elections is that we will finally see the full, lurid effect of a series of Supreme Court opinions that have largely deregulated campaign spending. Jeb Bush, flouting what remains of the old rules, is deliberately delaying his announcement of candidacy in order to coordinate with supposedly independent Super-PACs—for which his primary campaign strategists work—as they together plan a “shock-and-awe” level of fundraising that is intended to terrify rivals into submission and offset Bush’s poor polling numbers. Billionaires are lining up to provide open-ended backing for their favorite candidates, enabling a huge Republican field and raising fears of an unnaturally extended nominating process.
On a separate track, efforts to force disclosure of donors to nonprofits operating as campaign operations have stalled as conservatives—who used to back maximum disclosure as the answer to every concern about campaign spending—fan fears of IRS persecution.
Even before the public becomes fully aware of the true excesses unregulated money will reach in this cycle, the New York Times and CBS News have released a new survey demonstrating that support for regaining control over the influence of money in politics is broader than ever, reaching well into the rank-and-file of a Republican Party whose leaders typically denounce such controls as tyrannical and un-American. Indeed, the disconnect between Republican voters and politicians on the key questions associated with campaign financing is astonishing. According to the NYT/CBS poll, 81 percent of Republicans think the current system requires either fundamental changes or a complete rebuild. 71 percent support limits on individual contributions; 73 percent favor spending limits on independent groups; and 76 percent endorse full disclosure of donors.
Most surprisingly, half of Republicans reject the bedrock principle of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected speech. On all of these questions, Republicans don’t differ much from Democrats, though both are slightly exceeded in the appetite for change among independents.
Ah, but here’s the rub, per the write-up of the survey by the Times’ Nick Confessore and Megan Thee-Brenan:
More than half of those surveyed said they were pessimistic that campaign finance rules would be improved. (Republicans and independents expressed more pessimism, while Democrats were evenly divided.) Over half of respondents said that the current rules equally benefit the Democratic and Republican Parties.
And virtually no one in the poll ranked campaign financing as the most important issue facing the country.
And that perfectly accords with an ancient Conventional Wisdom that nobody really cares about the rottenness of the campaign finance system—or for that matter, money-driven public corruption—other than a handful of snooty “wine track” good-government types who care about boring “process issues.” The CW was recently articulated by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:
[F]or all the sturm und drang about the corrosive role that money plays in politics, there’s very little evidence that anyone outside of a narrow swath of committed campaign finance reformers would even consider making it a voting issue in 2016.
Interestingly enough, the same day the Times/CBS poll indicated widespread support for doing something about the influence of money in politics, the distinguished pollster and political adviser Stan Greenberg published an article for the Washington Monthly arguing that it’s actually “beer track” voters—the non-college-educated white voters that have steadily trended towards Republicans to the consternation of Democrats—who are most convinced the political system is rotten.
Indeed, says Greenberg, many of these voters have resisted Democratic appeals to their economic self-interest because their disgust with the cash nexus in politics and government has convinced them they cannot trust the system to work for them. So instead of ignoring “process issues” like campaign finance reform to talk about “real issues” like the economy, Democrats need to go big on reforming the political system and government itself in order to become credible on issues like economic insecurity and inequality.
[White working class] voters…are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda—to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.
No offense to Chris Cillizza, but I suspect Stan Greenberg, who has been studying this part of the electorate since his trailblazing analysis of the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, knows a bit more than Cillizza does about what makes these voters tick. Yet it’s also clear Greenberg does not believe isolated talk of campaign finance reform as one of many items on an agenda will make much difference—or for that matter, the sort of disconnected Koch Brothers-bashing a lot of Democrats did in 2014 (though less than you might think, especially in battleground states). It requires an integrated message addressing both ends and means:
[T]he presidential electorate is as enthusiastic about a reform narrative as the middle-class economic one. The first part of the narrative focuses on big business and special interests that give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the country billions. The second part emphasizes how special interests and the bureaucracy protect out-of-date programs that don’t work. The bottom line of the narrative is that government reform would free up money so the government could work for middle-class and working families rather than big donors.
So long as it is cynically assumed voters don’t care about the corrupting influence of money in politics or about government’s competence to achieve tangible progressive goals, the vicious circle of mistrust and alienation will become ever more intense, and we’ll get the country the highest bidders want.
Lead photo: Jan Gates on Flickr
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.