Defining Corruption Down Flies in the Face of Psychology
It was the basis for the McCutcheon decision. On behalf of the plurality, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties.
This piece of world class legal sophistry uses a definition of “corruption” that Roberts appears to have invented on the spot. It has no basis in any prior case law, nor in any conventional understanding of the term “corruption.” In his view, government has an interest in preventing bribery, but every other form of improper influence is basically fair game. Roberts confidently asserts, without any evidence or support, that no amount of money spent influencing politics can be corrupting.
Spoken like a true plutocrat!
Most Americans intuitively understand that bribery isn’t the only form of corruption, and generations of jurists have understood that Congress has a legitimate interest in avoiding the overwhelming influence of big money. As occurred during the last Gilded Age, big money is having a massive distorting effect on our government and political process.
Given the billions of dollars moving through the system each year, it should come as little surprise that our elected officials now respond primarily, if not exclusively, to the preferences of the rich – at least that’s what political scientists and political economists have concluded. Demolishing our campaign finance laws — as the Roberts Court seems intent on doing — will only make this problem worse.
Why should we care about the corrupting influence of big money? Because it undermines the representative character of our government. If the demands of 80 or 90 percent of Americans are seldom heard in the halls of power, we can’t really call ourselves a democracy or even a republic. The kind of institutional corruption we’re talking about here is potentially far more damaging than a few isolated bribery scandals because it can swiftly call the fundamental legitimacy of an institution into doubt.
But because explicit quid pro quos are illegal and have been for generations, many politically-minded academics have trouble explaining why there is a relationship between campaign contributions and legislative outcomes. What is the mechanism by which all this money exerts influence, if not through some kind of transactional process? Bad research methods and uncertainty surrounding the causes of big money corruption have led some to deny it exists or that it matters, despite abundant evidence that it does.
In fact, we know exactly why big money corrupts. It just takes a little knowledge of political psychology — as well as an understanding of the operational realities of American politics — to see it.
Reciprocity is at work. Acting as both a social norm and as an unconscious impulse, reciprocity is the desire to repay one favor with another. It’s why campaign contributions change the behavior of political leaders even when they don’t come packaged with explicit demands. Donations engender a sense of social and personal obligation, bending legislative, judicial, and executive outcomes toward the preferences of the biggest donors.
Reciprocity does most of its work outside normal conscious awareness, which is why lawmakers may not even be aware of its effects. Denial and self-deception are both extremely common when it comes to psychological phenomena — especially when those phenomena drive our political judgments and decisions.
One recent study showed that political leaders are more likely to take meetings with those who identify as donors than with mere supporters or constituents. Perhaps this is why lobbyists use donations to buy access to key lawmakers. Indeed, there appears to be a direct relationship between the size and timing of campaign contributions made by government contractors and the number of contracts rewarded.
But big corporations, paid lobbyists, and mega-donors aren’t the only ones who use the psychology of reciprocity to secure their interests. Politicians use it as well to win the loyalty of voters and even fellow lawmakers. Consider how the appropriations process and tax code are so often used to deliver favors to key constituencies, who in turn feel obligated to keep the incumbent in office.
Earmarks and pork-barrel projects are often necessary to get wavering legislators on board with difficult-to-pass laws. Although legislative horse-trading and logrolling involve much more overt exchanges than are legally permissible with campaign donations, reciprocating behavior lies at the heart of the process.
To be fair, reciprocity isn’t the only mechanism by which political contributions exert influence – but it’s an important one. Most special interest money exerts influence through good old-fashioned fear and desire. Any person or group with enough money has a staggering variety of ways to signal their political demands (as well as the resources at their disposal) without venturing anywhere near a quid pro quo: from legislative scorecards to lobby days, from position papers to paid ads, from op-eds to mission statements, and from candidate questionnaires to mass emails. This list barely scratches the surface.
The point is that if lawmakers want the financial support of a big contributor, they or their staff won’t have to look long or hard to figure out what to say and do. In fact, some special interests don’t even have to spend a dime to get their way: the mere threat of a well-funded primary challenge or multi-million-dollar ad-buy can be enough to whip key lawmakers into line.
Obviously there are plenty of small-dollar contributions flowing through the political system that by themselves aren’t enough to change a politician’s behavior. But political leaders will sometimes take proactive steps to attract a large number of these contributions – often by using heated rhetoric to fire up their base. Even as they spend much of their day on the phone asking for money, few politicians find it worth their time to directly solicit small donors. Small donations may be contributing to the overall level of partisanship, but they aren’t corrupting the political process.
Here’s our general rule of thumb: if a sum of political money is big enough to get noticed by a politician, it’s big enough to be corrupting. Politicians and their staffers face genuinely extreme demands on their time and attention. If a sum of money makes it onto their radar, almost by definition it’s influencing their thinking – if not their behavior.
There’s nothing inherently corrupt about being influenced by reciprocation, desire, and fear. After all, they’re part of the human condition. Nor is there anything inherently corrupt about being influenced by money. Money tends to have that effect on people!
What’s corrupting is that elected officials depend on these big piles of money to win office and stay in power. It’s our leader’s dependence on big money that makes our political processes and governing institutions corrupt. The only thing elected officials should depend on is the voting public.
In the wake of the McCutcheon decision, it seems (understandably) hopeless to talk about a campaign finance system that gives regular people at least as much influence as millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations. But as we think about how to fight the influence of money in politics, and envision campaign finance systems closer to our ideal, it’s important that we remember the basic psychological forces that make corruption possible even in the absence of explicit demands.
Defining corruption down not only flies in the face of history, politics, psychology, and common sense, it poses a mortal threat to the representative character of our government.