SCOTUS just handed down McCutcheon, on the all too usual 5-4 basis, striking down aggregate limits in campaign contributions. You can read the opinions here, but I’ll paraphrase Roberts’ opinion: “One dollar, one vote, bitches! Next case!”
I keed. It’s actually a fairly strong opinion, and this comes from someone who’s sympathetic to the notion that money has outsize influence in our politics.
I read Breyer’s dissent and, well, it’s not as strong. And it’s not strong because it’s not so much a principled legal argument as a pragmatic one, and the pragmatism has its roots in a pessimistic (though perhaps warranted) view of the American electorate. The thread that runs through Breyer’s dissent (mostly unspoken) is a nod to the reality that the American electorate is not particularly well-informed and is mostly apathetic. As a result, the influence of money (and a relatively small group of individuals and organizations with lots of it) outruns that of your ordinary voters. And that’s true, alas.
Breyer’s solution to that is to place restrictions on the amount of money in politics. And that is one way to address the issue, I suppose, though it’s an imperfect one, getting at the issue, as it does, at one remove. The core problem, I think, is that the electorate is uninformed on most policy issues (or, all too often in recent years, misinformed) and apathetic.
Imagine a country in which 85% of potential voters actually got themselves informed on issues important to them and voted accordingly (a pipe dream, I’m sure). For the most part, that would eliminate Breyer’s concerns and diminish the influence of monied interests. True, wealthy groups/individuals could still get their message heard more easily, and even attempt to misinform, but our hypothetical well-informed voters could see through that message (if it’s false) because a bit of work at the keyboard would provide counterpoints and contrary analysis.
If I can riff on The Usual Suspects for a moment: The greatest trick Big Money ever pulled was making you think all parties are the same and that your vote doesn’t matter.
Those who buy into that have mistaken cynicism for a principled position. They’ve taken the easy way out: “I’m above it all. What does it matter? They’re all the same anyway.”
But if they are all the same and if your vote doesn’t matter, that’s because we’ve allowed policymakers to answer primarily to money and to the voters that money gins up and misinforms, rather than to the rest of us. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s the thing: Everyone is busy, the internet makes it possible to find support for just about any opinion, however spurious the basis, and it can be hard to get well informed about policy. But it’s not impossible, and it matters a great deal.
A better informed, more engaged electorate would be an excellent counterweight to the influence of money in the system. Politicians respond to potential votes. It’s just that at the moment money translates directly into votes — but it needn’t.
Now, I’m ever an optimist (and also love analyzing/thinking about public policy) so I continue to hope that one day we’ll have soaring participation rates, an effective media, and honest, robust policy debates that inform voters. And if that day ever comes, that’ll be the day that money and those with lots of it will no longer be the primary driver of public policy.
Until then…well, maybe Breyer’s on to something.