“The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens.”
— Timothy Snyder
“I don’t care who [politician’s name] takes money from.”
I saw this comment on a Facebook post recently, and it shocked me. I had to remind myself that not too many years ago, I might have said the same sort of thing. I knew that some politicians are corrupt, but I also believed that for a genuinely principled person, money would have no real effect on their choices.
What changed my mind? Science.
Some years ago, I went through a period of fascination with behavioral economics — which, for those of you who don’t know, is kind of like the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup of the social sciences: “You got your economics in my psychology!” “You got your psychology in my economics!”
One of the books I read then was Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, which has a chapter on ‘conflicts of interest’. He begins by describing a landmark 2010 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, titled “Monetary Favors and Their Influence on Neural Responses and Revealed Preference.” The authors define ‘favor’ as a situation “in which one agent makes a gesture or provides a gift without any explicit expectation of reciprocity.” Like, say … a campaign donation.
The study was constructed like this: First, participants were told that their participation fee (variously $30, $100, or $300) was provided by one of two art galleries.
Next, the participants were shown a series of 60 paintings — each randomly paired with the logo of either the sponsor gallery or the non-sponsor one — while an fMRI machine ran brain scans. Finally, outside the scanner, they were shown the 60 paintings and logos again and asked to rate how much they liked or disliked each piece on a nine-point scale.
The fMRI scans showed that viewing the paintings paired with the sponsor logo caused significantly different brain activity compared with the non-sponsor paintings — especially in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain essential for social decision-making. In the second part of the study, participants said they liked the art from their sponsor gallery more, irrespective of the style of painting.
What’s more, it turns out that the higher the participation fee, the more intense the unconscious favoritism for the sponsor gallery. The effect on both brain imaging and rated preference was smallest at $30, larger at $100, and very large at $300. Yet when participants were asked whether the sponsor’s logo had any effect on their art preferences, every single one answered “no”.
This last part was the most important, in my view — that our preferences and choices can be — will be — demonstrably affected by ‘favors’ and ‘gifts’, even as we insist that we are being completely impartial. Our own sense of principle is no match for our unconscious mind.
Ariely also talked at length in the chapter about the psychological techniques used by pharmaceutical reps to indirectly influence doctors, ranging from the dispersal of logo-encrusted pens to developing extended friendships outside of work. “Some reps would go deep-sea fishing or play basketball with the doctors as friends. Such shared experiences allowed the physicians to more happily write prescriptions that benefited their ‘buddies’. The physicians, of course, did not see that they were compromising their values when they were out fishing or shooting hoops with the drug reps; they were just taking a well-deserved break with a friend.”
The exact same techniques are used by lobbyists on politicians, and if you imagine that politicians are somehow managing to be more honorable and principled than doctors, you … would probably be alone in that expectation. Governmental lobbyists, says Ariely, “spend a small fraction of their time informing politicians about facts as reported by their employers and the rest of their time trying to implant a feeling of obligation and reciprocity in politicians who they hope will repay them by voting with their interest in mind.”
The Center for Responsive Politics explains it like this:
If a lobbyist, a CEO, a union president, or a PAC director has supported your campaigns year after year, then comes knocking on your door seeking help with legislation, how can you not at least listen? It’s only natural. It’s only human to try to do favors for people who’ve done favors for you.
This doesn’t mean that every politician is on the take, or that his or her vote is up for sale to the highest bidder. Nearly all lawmakers elected to Congress are committed to a core set of issues they care about deeply and would never compromise on. But what about the many other issues Congress deals with that fall outside those bedrock issues? Can a one-two punch of a lobbying effort plus campaign contributions move a politician’s vote from yea to nay, or prompt him or her to add an amendment to a bill, or seek an ‘earmark’ appropriation for a generous supporter, or write a letter on their behalf to the federal agency that’s causing them trouble?
“Whatever issue brought you here today, I guarantee if there’s a decision to be made in Washington, it’s been touched, pushed, massaged, tilted over, just a little, so the folks with money do better than everyone else.”
— Senator Elizabeth Warren
Sunita Sah is a research psychologist who studies how professionals alter their behavior as a result of conflicts of interest. In one overview paper for The Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, she concludes, “Professionalism offers little protection; even the most conscious and genuine commitment to ethical behavior cannot eliminate unintentional, subconscious bias.”
There is an opposing camp arguing that it’s not that campaign donations alter votes, but rather that donors support candidates who already value the same things. The people making this argument tend to be traditional (rather than behavioral) economists, working from the ‘rational choice’ model and not taking messy human psychology into account.
One paper that explicitly makes this argument also beautifully illustrates the flaw in this line of thinking. The authors, economists from the Universities of Texas and Chicago, examined the voting records of U.S. Representatives from 1977 to 1990, focusing on those who left office during that time. They looked at campaign contributions from five special interest groups, then compared voting patterns between the Representative’s penultimate and final terms. Their theory was that if campaign contributions were successfully altering a politician’s vote, then once the politicians knew they would not be requiring campaign financing in the future, they would shift their votes away from the interests of the contributing group.
The economists could not find a correlation between SIG donations and shifts in voting behavior between politicians’ final two terms, and they took this as proof that campaign donations were not altering votes.
Yet all this paper really even attempts to test is whether politicians are consciously engaging in a quid pro quo by voting against their own deeply held beliefs in order to secure future campaign financing. It does not test whether large donations might shift a politician’s beliefs through unconscious positive associations, or through a friendship which develops during the increased ‘access’ such donations typically buy. Nor does it test whether politicians are being influenced by an unconscious sense of obligation to the wealthy individuals and corporations whose large donations enabled them to win their seat.
Because of course if behavioral economics is right, those unconscious effects continue into the future regardless of whether the politician will be seeking another term, and we shouldn’t expect to see a shift in voting patterns between the penultimate and final terms.
There is another, more direct way of checking to see whether campaign donations (as well as other forms of money in politics) are affecting politicians’ votes: tabulate the policy preferences of wealthy citizens, compare them to those of average citizens, and see whose agenda gets passed into law.
Conveniently, a pair of researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities did exactly that in 2014, and what they found was damning.
“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for,” they conclude, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
In other words: ordinary citizens have no political influence. The only way we’ll get something we want from the government is if a very wealthy individual or well-financed interest group happens to want the same thing.
Nor can you rely on interest groups to speak for you: as the authors note, “a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest-group system as a whole does not. Overall, net interest-group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most influential, business-oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.”
When discussing federal campaign finance, the two terms to know are Super PACs and bundlers.
Super PACs are a type of committee arising from the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision. Super PACs are not subject to the legal limits on campaign finance: they may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, interest groups, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against particular political candidates. They are not required to disclose their donors. Super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and — legally speaking — they are not allowed to coordinate with the official campaign of the candidates they benefit.
However, there are many ways of getting around the prohibition against campaign coordination, from bat-signal tweets to the common practice of having a campaign staff member transfer to the PAC. Across the board, the ‘independence’ of Super PACs is a thinly-veiled fiction.
Bundlers are a way of circumventing existing campaign finance limits that arose in the wake of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act of 2002. As the Center for Economic Policy and Research explains:
Bundlers are no ordinary high-dollar donors. They not only generally give the max donation of $2800 themselves, but also mine their social networks to encourage their family, friends, and colleagues to do the same. The sums they collect can be truly astonishing; for example, in 2008, 47 individuals or couples bundled in excess of $500,000 for then-candidate Barack Obama. It is not hard to appreciate that delivering $100,000 to a campaign’s coffers will earn you more influence than individually donating a mere $2800 (let alone $27).
Campaign journalist John Barron, in his 2008 book Vote for Me!: The Long Road to the White House, describes a conversation he had with a lawyer who explained in more detail how this can work:
For instance, Barry says, if you work for the head of a big New York law firm, and the head of that firm wants to support a particular candidate, and maybe they also want to get some business out of that candidate, they will let it be known to their staff that this is the candidate they should support. So when the ‘bundler’ comes around seeking contributions, everyone in the law firm knows they should write a personal cheque for the maximum $2300. “Do the math,” Barry says, “that’s almost a quarter of a million dollars right there.”
“Not coincidentally,” Barry goes on, “come the end of the year and time for the annual bonus from the law firm, everyone who gave to the preferred candidate will have an extra $2300 in their pay cheque … and then some.”
Bundlers often receive appointments in the administration of a candidate they supported — ambassador appointments are common — and if not directly appointed they can expect to have influence on who is granted those positions. For example, four out of five top bundlers to the Obama presidential campaign received key posts in his administration.
It matters where a candidate gets their money, and it also matters where a candidate spends their time. Just as behavioral economics has shown us the bias that evolves in doctors who are friendly with pharma reps, you can be sure that the more a politician schmoozes with billionaire bankers, or rubs elbows with tech company CEOs, the stronger their unconscious bias will be in favor of those industries.
A pair of researchers from UC Berkeley conducted a field experiment in 2016 where a political organization asked for meetings between members and their corresponding Representatives in 191 Congressional districts. Half of the requests revealed that the prospective attendee was a campaign donor, and half did not.
The result? When they were informed of campaign donations, senior policy makers granted access “between three and four times more often.” And that’s just for donors of undisclosed amounts with no personal relationship to the legislator.
“Policy makers’ time is finite,” these political scientists note, “so when they decide to spend time hearing the concerns of some individuals, they have less time to hear others’.”
As I write this, the Democratic Presidential primaries are in progress. The field has effectively narrowed to six candidates. But the choice to be made is essentially between three types of candidates.
[Edit: In the past 24 hours, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have dropped out of the race. Klobuchar has endorsed Biden and Buttigieg looks set to follow suit. This doesn’t affect my analysis below, especially as funds raised for both Klobuchar and Buttigieg can now be redirected toward Biden.]
The Anti-Corruption Candidates
On the one hand you have Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are both deeply committed to campaign finance reform.
Sanders, the current delegate front-runner, has received support from one major super PAC — a nurses’ labor union PAC. More recently, he’s benefited from outside spending by a coalition of grassroots organizations promoting climate action, racial justice, and other progressive causes. He refuses to take any money from billionaires, even the relative pittance of the $2800 individual limit.
Elizabeth Warren held out against super PACs for the entire race until just last week, when — for the first time — Warren’s campaign failed to insist on the shutdown of an independent PAC formed to support the Senator’s presidential bid.
Neither Sanders nor Warren are beholden to any bundlers. Their campaigns are first and second, respectively, in percentage of true small-money donors (under $200 total to the campaign).
Neither Warren nor Sanders has participated in closed-door, high-dollar fundraising, a common practice where candidates appear to a select group of wealthy donors in a private residence without any journalists present to report on the candidates’ statements and promises. Instead, Warren famously spends her time listening to in selfie lines and calling donors — some who’ve given as little as $5 — at random. Sanders doesn’t connect as much with voters one-on-one, but he is still the most popular candidate among small-money donors.
Both, in short, have been doing their level best to run a winning campaign without resorting to either money or connections from the ultra-wealthy. It’s a tough road, given how much the entire system is rigged in favor of big money.
The Business-as-Usual Candidates
Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden are all liberally utilizing either Super PACs, bundlers, or both.
Klobuchar, like Warren, disavowed Super PACs until just last week. (Although personally I find these reversals disappointing, I’m also sympathetic to both women: it’s hard to argue that the two remaining candidates most handicapped by patriarchal attitudes should continue to self-handicap by ignoring legal avenues of support that their male opponents already enjoy.)
Unlike Warren, however, Klobuchar’s presidential campaign has relied heavily on bundlers. One of particular concern is the CEO of agribusiness firm Cargill — the largest privately held company in the United States. Cargill has been a major financial supporter throughout Klobuchar’s political career; arguably this is reflected in her Senate voting record, where she has taken stances against agribusiness restrictions and environmental protections. Although she claims — and no doubt believes — that she votes only from her personal convictions, behavioral economics shows us again and again that this cannot possibly be true.
Biden and Buttigieg have both fully embraced big money from the beginning of their campaigns. They each have hundreds of campaign bundlers, leaving them beholden to many super-rich individuals and corporate industries. They both have Super PACs spending millions on ads on their behalf. Biden’s Super PAC has raked in money from large-money donors, some donating as much as $1 million apiece. Buttigieg is facing official complaints of illegal coordination between the PAC and his campaign.
Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden all say they want at least some level of campaign finance reform. But if any of them get elected, they will be burdened — whether they realize it or not — by a sense of gratitude and obligation to ultra-wealthy donors that will impact their actions in office.
Billionaire Self-Funded Candidate
And then we have Michael Bloomberg, who doesn’t just accept favors from billionaires, he is one himself.
The argument that Bloomberg is corruption-free because he is beholden to no one but himself is deeply flawed. We want our candidates to have a sense of obligation — but to ordinary citizens, not ultra-wealthy elites. That’s why small donors are important. Bloomberg doesn’t accept donations from regular people, nor does he take the time to speak with them.
And by spending almost half a billion dollars so far on his campaign, he threatens to drown out the voices of millions of Americans who are contributing $200 or less to the presidential race.
Instead of concerning himself with the general electorate, Bloomberg’s strategy has been to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the campaigns and causes of politicians around the country, winning support among the powerful just as certainly and deliberately as any pharmaceutical rep ever courted physicians.
Furthermore, just like Donald Trump, we have little idea how and where Bloomberg has made most of his money in the first place. When he was mayor of New York City, he famously allowed reporters to view (but not copy) his tax returns for only a few hours each year — and even then, the documents were heavily redacted, with actual dollar amounts and income sources blacked out. And Bloomberg has offered zero information on his net worth or his income since 2012.
Alone among the Democratic party candidates, Michael Bloomberg has been conspicuously silent on the issue of campaign finance reform. He wants a continuing plutocracy — to the point where he bragged on the debate stage last week about having bought members of Congress.
If Bloomberg becomes president, he will not be responsive to the general citizenry, only to his own self-interest and personal beliefs. And while a few of those personal beliefs may happen to benefit the citizenry at large, most of them will not. His bias in favor of the ultra-rich — not to mention his bias against women and people of color — is not in the least bit subconscious, but front-and-center.
“The reason that almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1% is precisely because of a corrupt political system which allows billionaires to have inordinate influence over the economic and political life of the country.”
— Senator Bernie Sanders
Campaign contributions are not the only problem plaguing our democracy. There are many other ways, from lobbying to revolving-door practices, in which billionaires, mega-corporations, and even foreign governments can influence and outright control our government. But to say that it doesn’t matter who a politician takes money from, or spends time with, goes against everything science has shown us so far.
Presidential elections matter because — as Trump has demonstrated — administrative appointments and executive actions can have a major effect on our government. Presidential elections are also the last place in our federal system where small donors have a fighting chance to make an impact: they make up over 50% of the money in Sanders’ and Warren’s campaigns, compared to just 13% in Congressional elections. If we ordinary citizens want to start to matter, we have to vote now for a candidate who owes more to us than to the ultra-rich.