Despite its critics, money in politics is a good thing. Campaign ads, especially negative ones, help voters make better-informed decisions.
It’s become a common rallying cry on the Right and the Left: “Let’s get money out of politics.” The phrase has been used as shorthand for banning lobbying, limiting corporate campaign contributions, and encouraging antipathy towards rich donors and super-PACs.
In this vein, Donald Trump famously claimed that he was “self-funding” his campaign for president. And despite being a millionaire himself, Bernie Sanders gained many followers in the last presidential election primarily by criticizing “millionaires and billionaires.” Throughout his ill-fated presidential run, the Vermont senator accused the rich of exercising too much influence in politics and stifling the voices of the common people.
Almost universally, critics of money in politics point to Citizens United v. FEC, a 2010 decision where the Supreme Court ruled that political spending was a form of constitutionally protected speech. Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton would have required a pledge to overturn Citizens United as a litmus test for their Supreme Court nominees. According to certain polls, the American people seem to be on their side.
But is this public outcry based in fact? Do the contributions of corporations, super-PACs, and the rich exercise undue or harmful influence over our elections?
The answer is no. In fact, there’s statistical evidence that large campaign contributions far from distort the public voice or harm American politics. Actually these contributions make the American people better informed.
First off, though, Citizens United makes good legal sense. It followed the 1976 precedent of Buckley v. Valeo, in which America’s highest court held that limiting campaign expenditures was an unconstitutional restriction on free expression. If expenditures were a form of political speech, the Court reasoned in Citizens United, why not the donations that comprised them?
This straightforward line of legal thought led one clear-sighted commentator to call Citizens United “misunderstood,” as the decision is not particularly earth-shattering on its face. Unable to fault Citizens United for its reasoning, its critics must resort to decrying its supposed effects. Yet they fail to adequately recognize that political donations do not emerge only from large groups and corporations. Overturning Citizens United would enable the government to restrict individual campaign contributions as well.
Moreover, as mentioned above, the data doesn’t support those who decry the influence of money on elections. In the last presidential election, Clinton received far more donations than Trump – including hefty sums from the super-PAC crowd that Citizens United made possible – and yet she lost. Then just a few short weeks ago, Jon Ossoff lost to Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, despite outpacing her in fundraising.
These recent real-world examples demonstrate that having more money on hand is no guarantee of campaign success. Despite hysterical claims that Citizens United made “corruption legal in America,” campaign donations aren’t used to buy votes or rig elections. They’re used to spread messages through political advertising and social media campaigns or to help candidates perform the research they need to reach voters.
On that subject, a growing number of voices have begun to argue that even negative political advertising has a net positive effect. Political advertising, even the nastiest of attack ads, remind voters of candidates’ positions and past decisions. The American public becomes better informed and heads to the polls in greater numbers. After all, “a negative ad is not necessarily a false ad.” Negative campaign ads can be extremely informative and help voters make more-informed decisions.
Lastly, the alternatives to current campaign finance methods are fraught with peril. Limits on speech are often a slippery slope. Once the government can regulate one kind of political spending, they can choose to regulate it all in the name of “fairness.”
Under such a system, commonly termed “publicly funded elections,” the government would use tax dollars to provide pools of funds for candidates while prohibiting most other large contributions – essentially forcing citizens to donate to candidates they may not support. There would also be no incentive for the party in power to allocate money fairly to candidates of the opposing party. Public campaign finance would only increase the potential for corruption, not end it.
The bottom line is this: corporations don’t vote, voters do. No amount of money can force a voter to change their mind, but sizable campaign contributions can enable candidates to spread their message more effectively, creating a more knowledgeable voting populace. We would be wise to keep existing protections for such political expression firmly in place.
Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a staff writer at SBNation and The New Americana, and his work has been featured at The Federalist. He may be found on Twitter at @cmigbear.