Between Citizens United and the upcoming billion dollar presidential campaign, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection between fundraising and democratic participation. But it’s there. Not only is fundraising a tangible way for candidates to demonstrate their political viability, but the process of fundraising—holding events, making phone calls, shaking hands—can engage interested citizens in ways that go beyond voting. If excess money is a problem in politics, it has everything to do with the narrow source of funds—we need to make the pot larger, not put a lid on it.
At the New York Times, Joe Nocera misses it. After quoting from and praising an e-mail from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Nocera presses for a boycott of campaign contributions:
Schultz thinks the country should go on strike against its politicians. “The fundamental problem,” he said, “is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election. The lifeblood of their re-election campaigns is political contributions.” Schultz wants his countrymen—big donors and small; corporations and unions—to stop making political contributions in presidential and Congressional campaigns. Simple as that. Economists like to talk about how incentives change behavior. Schultz is proposing that Americans give Washington an incentive to begin acting responsibly on their behalf. It’s a beautiful idea.
I disagree. Schultz’s idea is deeply wrongheaded, for a whole host of reasons. As a democratically elected body whose aim is to represent the interests of its constituents, re-election campaigns are integral to making Congress work. Far from being a “fundamental problem,” if the re-election incentive were removed, then lawmakers would have few constraints on unilateral actions, as citizens lost the means by which to hold them accountable. Schultz’s suggestion sounds hard-nosed and forward-thinking, but in reality, it’s profoundly anti-democratic.
The same goes for his (and Nocera’s) proposal to stop campaign donations. Leaving aside the huge collective action problem—if CEOs stop donating, for instance, this enhances the influence of non-CEOs—it’s simply the case that Schultz and Nocera are demanding less participation in the political process. In essence, they’re endorsing apathy. If your goal is to make the public less interested in lawmaking, then this is fine. But if the goal is to make politicians more responsive to public needs—and voters more attuned to the failings of their leaders—then both ideas (no re-election incentive and no donations) are at best counterproductive and, at worse, actively harmful.