Seriously, I can’t believe I actually want to write a politics post. I’m not even registered to vote in California, because I don’t know how long I’ll be here and there’s no Democratic primary anyway this year. But I keep reading about the other party in the news and…well, the problem is that it’s “the other party” that’s in the news. It’s strange that I haven’t heard any recent complaining about our choiceless two-party system, because the structure of the Republican primary contest has some relevance for the question in a way that it did not before this year. And so I’ve been thinking about what the actual effect of unlimited campaign spending is on our politics.
You (regardless of who “you” are) probably know more than I do about the fact that the Supreme Court struck down big campaign finance restrictions in some case called Citizens United, and that as a result, this year there are new “Super PACs” that spend whatever they want to say whatever they want on behalf of whomever they want, whether that person wants it or not. I inferred that Gingrich did not want their help at one point when he was still trying to be the obligatory “clean” candidate.
Liberal politics holds that this is bad because (I think) it gives the reins of the campaign to whatever rich special interests want to take them. Campaign finance is supposed to be strictly populist: everyone gives the same small amount or all candidates receive equal amounts from the government. That way, no voices are drowned out.
Because I don’t actually think about what I’m indoctrinated with until many years have passed (this is not unusual, I believe) this has always seemed right to me. But it’s actually wrong. What it says is that the campaign should be conducted like a first election, and this is on top of the fact that we already have preliminary elections in the form of primaries. Not everything should be put to a vote; in particular, the purpose of a campaign is to build support for a candidate who may not be well-known, but deserves to be. Though it is not clear according to whom they are deserving.
The nightmare scenario for this position is that an election is completely dominated by one billionaire Republican donor who buys his favorite economic conservative into office, or one gigantic religious organization that buys its favorite social conservative into office. It is generally thought, because Democrats are deeply insecure, that this will happen to the Republicans. Two things are wrong with this sentiment: first, it could happen to a Democrat (surprise! Rich liberals exist); second, it doesn’t have to happen this way.
Right now in the Republican primary I see that there are essentially independent free agents putting out ads in support of the candidates. Each candidate has his own now-unregulated campaign financiers, sometimes multiple. It is true that some of them are propping up Gingrich, who is unworthy in exactly the way the Democrats fear, and some are propping up Santorum, who is worse. They are certainly amplifying everything that is bad about the Republicans today. Some are supporting Romney, though, who is some things that used to be good about the Republicans even though he’d rather you forgot that. They are, in other words, splitting the party.
The reason we have only two parties is that they have engineered every aspect of the system to favor them. It’s supposed to be redistricting (“gerrymandering”, to use one of the oldest terms in US politics) that puts the lock on it, but for a long time it was also the party “machines” that decided what was to happen. We have not heard much about the machines in a long time but it would be stupid to think that career political power brokers have simply given up trying to manipulate the system.
Political parties exist to support their candidates; that is literally their purpose. When all money comes directly from the ruling parties, it is no surprise that third parties cannot flourish, because they have no existing structure. But now money can come from anywhere. Effectively, the requirement to form a political party at all has been abolished, except to get on ballots.
At the moment, super PACs are fighting over well-known issues. But there’s no reason that one can’t form around a socially liberal, economically conservative East Coaster: not a popular combination now but one that I imagine has a lot of potential money. It may not result in the creation of an actually new party but may increase the variation in one of the existing ones.
Campaign finance restrictions basically serve to make all candidates completely average. I wonder if the Democrats realize the potential of the new system for enabling them to lean much more towards the exceptional.