What money can’t buy in politics

Money does other things that are subtler yet in some ways just as concerning as outright corruption. And, in a bit of a shock, new research suggests that money doesn’t do something that many think it does. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
U.S. Capitol in Washington

In this week’s cover story, staff writer Christa Case Bryant explores an issue that is often put at the root of America’s political problems: money. A September Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 77 percent of respondents agreed that “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” is either the most important or a very important issue facing the country. 

In these populist times, it strikes a chord among both Republicans and Democrats. There’s a reason “drain the swamp” became a rallying cry. But it’s important to be clear about what money does and doesn’t do in politics. For example, while corruption certainly exists and deserves attention, it hasn’t been seen by political scientists as the main problem in past years. 

Money does other things that are subtler yet in some ways just as concerning as outright corruption. And, in a bit of a shock, new research suggests that money doesn’t do something that many think it does. 

Money turns lawmakers into constant fundraisers. Five years ago, The Washington Post ran an article titled “The most depressing graphic for members of Congress.” It came from a PowerPoint presentation given to incoming Democratic members of Congress, and it suggested that as many as five to seven hours of a lawmaker’s 10-hour day should be committed to fundraising activities. 

“What we don’t worry about enough is the way the hunt for money saps another precious resource: time,” wrote Ezra Klein. He went on to say that an elder statesman in the Senate at the time, now retired, marveled at how much money members of Congress now had to raise. “I would have no idea how to raise that kind of money in a campaign. And that’s new to me,” he said. 

Money appears to give wealthy people more influence. This might not come as a shock, but it has been hard to prove. A 2014 study by professors from Princeton and Northwestern universities, however, suggested a strong correlation. “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule – at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes,” the authors wrote. “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” 

Money doesn’t change people’s minds much. The advertising, the robocalls, the rallies – a new study says they do almost nothing to change voters’ minds in a general election. The reason? In this era of partisan tribalization, voters pretty much already know whom they’re going to vote for. That’s one reason the past three presidential elections have been won not by the candidate who necessarily appealed more broadly but by the candidate who best got supporters to vote. 

Though America’s campaign finance laws are generally far looser than those in Europe, the issue of money in politics is not solely an American one. A French study earlier this year was titled “Even in France, Money Rules Politics.” Money can’t – and shouldn’t – be ruled out of politics. But knowing how it influences the system is crucial to shaping the system we want to have.

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