Let's debate the merits (not the constitutionality) of campaign finance reform

Whenever we debate campaign finance reform in this forum, it seems we always spend most of our time debating whether it’s forbidden by the First Amendment. For purposes of this thread, let’s ignore that and focus on the more basic question of whether it’s a good idea. If it is, it might be worth amending the Constitution for. Let us also ignore the questions of what exact campaign finance measures should be used, and whether they could be made to work. This thread is for discussing whether there actually is a problem here that requires solving.

From The Next American Nation, by Michael Lind (The Free Press, 1995), pp. 256-259 (from before the McCain-Feingold Bill, but I don’t think the picture has changed all that much since it passed):

I say we need to change this system, however we do it, to make it impossible – not merely difficult but impossible – for anybody to influence the outcome of an election by spending money on it. This is a good and necessary thing because:

  1. Under our present system of campaign financing, the rich and the corporations have disproportionate influence (“disproportionate” meaning, out of proportion with their numbers) over our election processes – over who can be taken seriously as a potential candidate to start with, and who gets nominated, and who gets elected.

  2. The above is a Very Bad Thing, in and of itself. It’s plutocracy, not democracy. Elections are the most important – for most of us the only – way we have to make the government serve the will of the people, which is what democracy is all about. And as it stands, the rich have more influence over the rest of us in deciding who will be making important public decisions, and they will naturally favor those who can be counted on to favor the interests of the rich even when those conflict with the interests of the majority. (And yes, it is possible for the interests of the rich to conflict with the interests of the majority. If you dispute that point we’ll need to start a whole new thread just to discuss that.)

  3. Our present system also gives the rich and corporations disproportionate influence over what officials do once they are in office – because once elected they owe their donors a favor, and because they will be needing more favors in the future. There’s always another election coming up.

  4. The above is a Very Bad Thing, for the same reasons given in point 3, but squared and cubed.

Now, does anybody seriously dispute any of these four points? For instance, do you see some positive value in letting the rich call the shots?

CFR is bad because it’s like the war on drugs. You just ain’t gonna win.

You can spout off ethical and moral reasons why the rich should not have more influence in elections, but the fact of the matter is that rich people with opinions will use their cash to get their opinions heard. When the current wave of CFR was passed, you got things like NRA radio and Air America. You tried to seperate the money and the candidates, but then the money found other ways to be heard, and then any idiot can link the candidates with the campaign issue.

“Hmmm… I’ve been listening to NRA radio and decided that I am opposed to gun control, should I vote Bush or Kerry? Decisions, decisions.”

Also, it means that “news-sources” that once put a premium on impartiality are now openly biased, which is a bad thing. Short of ending all speech, you just won’t be able to end money-backed political speech.

I understand the campaign financing laws in Europe, Australia, etc., are pretty effective. (So say some Dopers from those countries who have posted in relevant threads, some of which I started.) But let’s table the feasibility-of-enforcement question for the moment, along with all issues related to the First Amendment. Assuming that effective CFR can be done, is there any non-constitutional reason why it shouldn’t be done?

I think that quoted book is wrong. I don’t believe that political donations buy results, to paraphrase its point. I know a number of lobbyists who are involved in just the sort of doling out campaign funds in the manner described, and, to a man, they do not believe that they are buying votes. They believe that they are buying access. That’s a notable difference.

However, this stuff does indeed taint the system, no doubt. However, the suggestion in the OP – something like ending the influence of money in elections – is completely and 100% impossible under any system that allows people to donate money to their favored candidates. For most races, money doesnt influence the election, advertisements do. I’ve never known anyone to cast their vote based upon which candidate raised the most money. Does the OP mean that we should crack down on political advertisements?

They might not be buying votes as such, but they buy access because access does get them results. Were it not so, all lobbyists would be part-time volunteers.

Then let’s have a system that does not allow people to donate money to their favored candidates. It’s not allowed in all democracies, you know.

And that’s how money influences the election. Because advertising costs money and that’s where practically all campaign donations go. Which means any aspiring candidate has to win a “wealth primary” to even have a chance of being taken seriously.

Maybe. I want to discuss principles in this thread, not details and mechanics. But in France, for instance, political advertising as we know it does not exist. The candidates in any election are allotted equal time, for free, on TV stations – which gives each candidate an equal chance to get his or her message across to the voters.

The whole premise of this thread is flawed.

Much campaign finance reform runs counter to the First Amendment, that pesky little thing slapped onto the Constitution mor’n two hundred years ago that so many folks try to ignore.

The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that certain types of “reforms” are a constitutional violation.

Therefore, ignoring the constitutional aspect of this issue is ignoring the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.

It would be far better to discuss the issue in its totality.

Right, just ignore the constitutionality, ignore the feasability, ignore everything that doesn’t support CFR?

Expanding on what BrainGlutton said, widespread advertising costs a lot of money… and a big advertising budget can allow advertisements to be more effective by them being more tailored to the audience, use of the best advertisement makers in the industry, etc.

I repeat: If we look at the issue closely, it might prove to be important enough to amend the Constitution over it.

No. Focus on things other than constitutionality and feasibility, that might or might not support CFR. No point discussing the other points until we’ve first determined whether it’s a good idea.

But a major part of why CFR is a bad idea is precisely the restrictions it imposes on political speech, which, in addition to being consitutionally problematic, is itself a Bad Idea.

Attempting to discuss the merits of this issue without consideration of the speech restrictions is an attempt to consider the merits of the issue without looking at the demerits. It’s not an honest debate if you a priori rule one side out of order.

And how is political speech “restricted” in those countries that have effective campaign financing laws, such as France?

France doesn’t have the same First Amendment rights that we do. They can limit their political speech and ban headscarfs for Muslims in public schools; those things would be blatant violations of our First Amendment.

I don’t see France as being anti-free speech, but our standard of free speech is probably more liberal than theirs. Personally, I’m loath to tinker with the Bill of Rights unless there is a really really big problem out there.

The main problem with the current campaign finance laws, as I see it, is that they make politicans look sleazy even if they play by the rules. I’m not entirely convinced that this problem of the public’s perception of politicans is something that can really be fixed – folks will always come up with new ways to think that polticians are slimebags.

There is, Ravenman, there is.

Irrelevant. The problem here is not the public’s perception of politicians, but the reality of campaign donations’ effects on elections and public policy.