Out, Damn Spot: On Money, Politics, and Hopeless Reform

I’ve argued before that the obsession with “getting the money out of politics” that you see among liberal Democrats, most recently Bernie Sanders and his supporters, doesn’t really make sense. Yesterday, reading Walker Bragman’s laughable liberal case for Donald Trump, I came across a couple paragraphs that nicely demonstrate the analytical weakness of this view of politics:

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Trump is that he speaks his mind. This sometimes leads to some pretty outlandish things, but not always. As Shane Ryan of Paste magazine, pointed out in a recent article, Trump has spent much of his time lately, railing against free trade and NAFTA, as well as the gross inequality in our system. Trump often talks about raising taxes on “hedge fund guys,” and he has acknowledged that the primary process is skewed in favor of the establishment.
Like Sanders, Trump is neither beholden to special interests, nor coordinating with a Super PAC. This alone sets him apart from the other candidates in the race — especially Hillary Clinton. If he wins the presidency, it will send shock waves through our political system, much like what would happen if Bernie were elected, but with a twist.

The idea that Trump might be preferable to Clinton by virtue of his apparent financial independence from “special interests” and super PACs is an absurdity. But it does make a very narrow kind of sense if you believe that liberal priorities like universal health care, carbon taxes, and free or affordable college lie beyond our reach primarily because of “money in politics.”

In this view, the most important thing is to break the current system, tear down the political establishment, and erect a new order, which, being untainted by super PAC cash and campaign donations from major corporations, will naturally do what everyone secretly knows to be right: passing the leftmost legislative agenda currently considered acceptable by the leftmost plurality of Democratic voters.

Of course, Trump has expressed no interest in passing such an agenda, despite the fact of his financial independence. Clinton, whom many liberals see as almost uniquely compromised by her establishment credentials and cozy relationship with corporate heavyweights, has a platform that bears a strong resemblance to Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialist utopia. The “get the money out of politics” crowd has no theory to explain this apparent contradiction.

As it happens, I do have one: Clinton is a liberal Democrat who agrees with most Democrats about what we should do to improve the country. Trump is a conservative Republican who disagrees with most liberals about practically everything.

The great enduring analytical failure of leftists and liberals has been our refusal to accept that other people really, actually disagree with us about what is good and what is important. Instead of working to persuade voters to support our preferred leaders and legislation, we’ve written books asking What’s the Matter with Kansas. Instead of developing new and better arguments, we’ve told the working class that they’re voting against their own interests: if they really understood the world, if they weren’t so backwards and racist and easily misled, they would let us run the country and do whatever we want.

What a pitch!

This is not to say that money has no explanatory power, or that I think there is nothing the matter with Kansas; rather, I think that money has more power than the “get the money out” crowd will admit, and that Kansas voters are in fact being badly misled. The trouble is that “getting the money out” would do almost nothing to change this.

I abhor scare quotes, but I use them when I talk about “getting the money out” because people who use this phrase generally have extremely narrow goals. They don’t plan to stop rich people from being politically active (in fact some, like Mr. Bragman, would apparently like to elect a real estate mogul our president!). Rather, they want to reform how we finance campaigns. They want to limit the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend to finance campaign advertising and infrastructure.

While I also support these policies, I don’t entertain for one second the belief that they would solve many problems. As my evidence I offer Trump, who will be the Republican nominee not because he spends billions, but rather because he has them.

Trump is popular because he is rich. Rich people are popular because our culture tells us that rich people are cool and smart and good with money. Trump’s fortune makes him a successful candidate because our culture tells us that billionaires have strong leadership qualities. “Getting the money out of politics” would not change this: campaign finance reform would not make Trump a pauper, nor would it diminish the social capital that he enjoys.

Why does our culture love billionaires so much? One obvious reason is human nature: we like successful people, and we want to be their friends. (This is probably the result of a simple, selfish calculation — maybe if I’m nice to that rich guy, he’ll give me some dough.) Another reason is that billionaires control vast swathes of our culture and language. Though the Koch brothers spend huge sums on both campaign finance and ideology, I strongly suspect that their ideology production is the more important spending — that if Republicans were not girded by lies and shoddy arguments about the climate, they would find it both politically and psychologically untenable to prevent action on climate change.

Our language and politics are also controlled, from top to bottom, by the need to get paid. As a middle-class office worker, I need to stay employable, which means looking like a stable, intelligent, reasonable person to people more wealthy than I am, which means evincing their values — and not, for example, attending protests that might lead to my arrest. Those people more wealthy than me are of course hoping to become wealthier still, which means they need to impress their rich friends, which means evincing their values. And so on. Although conservatism is partly an expression of tribal identity and support for heterosexual white privilege, it’s also aspirational. Working class conservatives understand that they aren’t rich, and in many cases realize that Republican tax plans do not benefit them in the slightest. They support said tax plans because they like the people those plans do benefit, and because they want to be those people. Holding conservative opinions feels like one way into the club.

Trump understands these phenomena well. They are the basis of his fortune, his fame, his political success. He built a so-called university on the promise that giving him money would, like burning livestock on God’s altar, lead to good fortune. He is the avatar of one sad, gross reality: it’s impossible to get the money out of politics. The two things are so inextricably linked that any attempt to disentangle them only serves to obscure their relationship.


In 2009, Louisiana representative William J. “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, a Democrat, was sentenced to thirteen years in federal prison for soliciting and accepting bribes. He was unusually flagrant:

On 30 July 2005, Jefferson was videotaped by the FBI receiving $100,000 worth of $100 bills in a leather briefcase at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Virginia.[8]Jefferson told an investor, Lori Mody, who was wearing a wire, that he would need to give Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar $500,000 “as a motivating factor” to make sure they obtained contracts for iGate and Mody’s company in Nigeria.[9]
A few days later, on 3 August 2005, FBI agents raided Jefferson’s home in Northeast Washington and, as noted in an 83-page affidavit filed to support a subsequent raid on his Congressional office, “found $90,000 of the cash in the freezer, in $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminum foil and stuffed inside frozen-food containers”.

It’s my strong impression that most politicians don’t do business this way. If you want to bribe Hillary Clinton, you don’t hand her a briefcase full of cash for her to squirrel away in her freezer. You do it the polite way: you pay her to speak to your friends, or you donate to her campaign. There probably isn’t an explicit quid pro quo; why risk it? Rather, the next time one of your interests crosses her desk, she might remember you, and might feel better disposed toward your company. I do not dispute that these things happen. They likely happen all the time.

Rather, I prefer this arrangement to Dollar Bill’s secret deals. I like the bribes to be, as much as possible, done out in the open, where I can see them. Because they will happen. Some politicians are cleaner, in this sense, than others — I think that to the extent Obama is a corporate stooge, for instance, it’s very likely a result of his genuine ideological alignment with said corporations, and not because anyone has given him money — but they will not all be clean, nor even many of them. Every breath spent trying to change this fact is almost certainly wasted.

Despite the fact that Clinton has a super PAC, she would like to do a great many things that would improve the country. This is, as I’ve said, because she’s a liberal Democrat. We are fortunate that this is so — that someone, at some point in her life, persuaded her to believe that we should pay collectively for things like roads and health care, that progressive taxation is important, that systemic racism is harmful to people of color, and that this harm matters. She is not as liberal as I would like her to be. She is not as good a person as I would like her to be — is not a pacifist, is not even gentle.

This may be because of all the money in politics. But as I’ve said, we’re not going to get the money out. What we should do is persuade more people to share our priorities, our agenda, our ethics. We must finally accept that people really do disagree with us, and that while this disagreement may be (is probably) a result of money’s influence, that doesn’t make it any less real. Nor does the money make our disagreements intractable. Politics change. Ethics change. Slowly, too slowly, they do.

We can’t elect leaders who share our values until the nation shares our values. Instead of trying to tweak the rules until our electoral system delivers the outcomes we want, we need to focus on changing our neighbors. We have to be leaders. We have to be kind.