Arguing the toss, spiked style

This week: should the state put restrictions on political donations?

The US Supreme Court has just voted to strike down restrictions on political-campaign funding. Nothing changes, eh? The rich always get their way.

What did the court say?

It said that rules restricting the number of candidates an individual could donate to should be lifted and the overall cap on donations by an individual should be lifted, too. It’s open season on buying influence. The guy who brought the case was complaining he could ‘only’ donate to 16 different Republican candidates! One of the dissenting judges pointed out that the ruling ‘creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign’.

Do you think that’s really the problem with US politics – indeed, politics in any Western society today?

US election campaigns are won by sheer weight of money. Everything is done via TV advertising campaigns, so the more cash you’ve got, the more likely you are to persuade people to vote for you. And building campaign organisations costs a lot of hard cash, too. The little guy has no chance. In turn, the guys who write the big cheques get to sit down with the candidates and influence their thinking.

Hmmm… I’m not convinced. Cash is by no means the only reason why an election goes one way or another.

Come on! You can’t even get to be nominated as a candidate, never mind win an election, without bucketloads of money.

Where to start? First, I think most people who run for election do so because they want to ‘do some good’, even if it’s just an arrogant assumption that they can do a better job than anyone else. So the idea that they can be so easily bought by a donor seems a bit conspiratorial. Second, the donors don’t necessarily want to buy influence about a certain subject. They just may believe that, for example, a Republican candidate will be more pro-business in general than a Democrat. Opinion polls will have far more influence on a candidate than one of probably many people who are willing to make a big donation.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude dodgy dealing in political life. Corruption does exist, but it’s completely simplistic to say that money is the most important factor in winning an election.

Would you accept that scenario in sport? Would you allow teams to field as many players as they can afford? No.

That’s not a valid comparison. The teams on the pitch, as it were, are the voters. In the polling booth, every candidate has the same chance to earn that tick as any other. But let’s not torture metaphors. I do think you show a very low view of voters and the vast majority of politicians if you think that they are so easily influenced.

In fact, the US still has rules restricting the amount that a donor can give to any one candidate – and those rules should be removed, too.

What?!

I don’t think it is the place of the state to decide how someone can spend their money. I should be free to back any point of view I choose to. In that respect, campaign-finance restrictions become a free-speech issue. Free speech isn’t just about what you say, but also about your right to support someone who espouses a point of view you agree with.

The First Amendment was not a charter for the rich to buy government. Now you’re torturing the constitution.

The First Amendment is a charter for free expression of political ideas, and it is no coincidence that it is the product of a period of radical change. It is a very good thing that it still exists.

I think the First Amendment is a good idea in principle, but I still think we need campaign-finance reform. Better still, maybe the money should only come from the state so that all parties go into elections on an equal footing.

Actually, the obsession with campaign finance, whether in America with political donations or in Europe with state funding of political parties, really reveals a sense from liberals and left-wingers that the state is there to balance things up, to level the playing field. Oh god, we’re back on sporting metaphors again… But that attitude implies that you can’t persuade voters to back your point of view. So you need the state to step in to protect you. No radical change is ever going to be possible if you insist that politics should be a matter of debate between state-approved parties. Nothing fundamental could possibly change in those circumstances.

And what is worse is that by spreading the notion that politicians are fundamentally corrupt, that they’re only in it for themselves and for their wealthy backers, you encourage cynicism about politics itself. Even the mere discussion of politics is reduced to who-pays-whom rather than a battle of ideas. Debate becomes impossible when people stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘I’m not listening to you! You must be in the pay of somebody because you say something I disagree with!’ And actually, that’s an outlook that exists across the political spectrum. Liberals too often explain everything in terms of big corporations or billionaires funding groups, while conservatives see NGOs feeding at the trough of state funding.

The result of all of this is that most people switch off from politics, which in turn becomes dominated by noisy cliques in Washington, Westminster or the media. The great periods of political change come about because people are organised, involved and demanding. The real problem with politics today is the way the majority of people have been marginalised.

If you want political change, you’re going to have to start campaigns and go out and persuade people of your point of view. If you sit there whining about campaign finance, you’ll change nothing – and you’ll probably make things even worse.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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