Foreign Policy Blogs

Money politics

Campaign finance is one of the gray areas of corruption, a practice that makes those concerned with accountability squirm, but one that is largely legal. Few would claim that democracy is served when a donor’s financing of a political campaign leads directly to policies in favor of that donor – but such a link is nearly impossible to prove. Instead, there is a general sentiment among certain segments of the population that “too much money” leads to “bad things,” while the law draws the line much more generously than they would like and most offenders transgress with impunity.

Hence the discomfort with the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down campaign finance law that bans political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Candidates, we believe, should serve the interests of the public, the antithesis of corporations. If corporations can give as much as they like – an amount presumably far greater than that available to organizations dedicated to the public’s and not shareholder interest – the balance will tip towards policies serving their interests instead. Soon our democracy will be no more than a front for corporate dealing.

Analysts on the right and left have expressed concern about the implications of the ruling, if generally reaching opposing conclusions. In particular, it will allow corporations to fund advertising in the lead-up to elections. It appears that the results will be potent and visible.

The relationship between campaign finance and corruption is open to debate. Based on the common definition of corruption as “the abuse of public office for personal gain,” taking money for your campaign might qualify as corruption as follows: you personally gain from holding office (through employment, perks, etc.), and you abuse this office by soliciting donations on the expectation that you will fulfill the donor’s wishes. In this case, only the public official is corrupt. But using Transparency International’s definition of corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” the donor may also be implicated, as it is also in a position of power. In this case, a system in which money influences politics is corrupt throughout.

It is this type of corruption that the U.S. Congress was hoping to end with legislation such as McCain-Feingold, which was impacted by the Supreme Court ruling. The ruling is not the first time that the Court’s need to uphold freedom of speech has trumped the best interests of U.S. policymakers. It has left the United States, which generally prefers to be the one critiquing other nations’ democracy, in an uncomfortable position.

If new laws cannot avoid falling foul of the Court in the future, the best remedy is transparency. As stated by former President Jimmy Carter introducing a revealing report on campaign finance transparency, “Without disclosure, the ceilings on donations and spending cannot be enforced, nor can we prevent illicit money from finding its way into campaign coffers. Moreover, a lack of disclosure gives rise to public suspicion that donors are buying favours from politicians, and undermines public confidence in clean and legitimate elections and political representation.” Transparency does not violate free speech, and it can overcome some of the deepest challenges to free elections. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling, it is our best option.