01 July 2011

Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett and the Bipolarchy of Wealth and Incumbency

Since I've never been a big fan of public financing of political campaigns, I can't mourn too much over the Supreme Court's decision last Monday striking down an Arizona "clean elections" law. The conservative majority of Justices ruled the Arizona statute unconstitutional because it imposed, in their view, an unreasonable burden on candidates who refused to rely on public financing. The burden was the money the state would grant to candidates who accepted public financing to compensate for the money raised privately by opponents in excess of the allowance originally granted to publicly-financed candidates. Employing reasoning we've encountered before, the majority rules that the Arizona law has a chilling effect on free speech and political participation by denying privately-funded (or self-funded) candidates the advantage they expect to derive from opting out of the public-financing plan. Whether anyone should consider themselves entitled to such an advantage in a free election doesn't seem to have entered into the Court's deliberations anytime recently. But more troubling than the Court's reasoning is some of the applause the majority has received this time.

Apologists for unlimited campaign spending often argue that limits on spending bias elections in favor of incumbents. They often go on to argue that demands for limits on spending are defenses of incumbency encouraged, through legislation, by incumbents themselves. As Jacob Sullum explains it on the Reason website, "self-financing worries Congress because it allows challengers to overcome the huge advantages enjoyed by incumbents. In other words, it can be a powerful tool to oppose entrenched interests." George Will, of course, has most constantly and pompously decried "the element of incumbent protection in most campaign regulations," and predictably cheered this week's decision. While Sullum, at least, argues that masses of people can pool their private resources to match any corporate spending, he still makes the more important implicit argument that the only effective deterrent to incumbency is money. He asserts explicitly, and contemptuously, an equation of fundraising capacity and political worth, noting:

Arizona's system did help candidates who were neither wealthy nor good at attracting voluntary contributions. It's debatable whether the public benefits from increasing the percentage of politicians who are so unappealing that their only hope of gaining office is by depending on money forcibly extracted from taxpayers.

In other words, the proof of a good idea in Sullum's commodified mind is whether it can draw money. What, then, can a candidate expect who campaigns against the influence of money in politics, or the dependence of politicians and parties on fundraising? In Sullum's mind, I'd presume, such ideas are so stupid that they deserve no support, but would the fact that such a candidate got little or no money really disprove his views?

Opinionators like Sullum and Will theorize an alternate American Bipolarchy, pitting wealth against incumbency in fundamental struggle instead of Republicans and Democrats. The idea may appeal to people frustrated with the two-party hegemony, or those who imagine an irrepressible conflict between the ever-embattled "private sector" and the ever-encroaching State. In practice, however, we should expect to see this Bipolarchy function much as the actually existing Bipolarchy does. Some people look to the private sector -- for all intents and purposes, corporate America -- as a check on the "political class." But the actual relationship is more symbiotic than adversarial, however much bureaucracy and boardroom resent their codependency, while allowing wealth the maximum influence over elections will more likely only reinforce the symbiosis. That symbiosis is perhaps most burdensome on the working class of the country, who must wonder sometimes: if wealth is the only effective check on offensive power, what recourse do the rest of us have?


Anonymous said...

I think Che Guevera had the answer to that question.

Samuel Wilson said...

Cubans might be impressed, Bolivians less so.

Anonymous said...

Just saying. It is presumable that eventually the working class will have reached it's "last straw" and the notion that the wealthy, by right of spending power, somehow deserve more representation in government than the majority may well be that last straw.

Especially if, no matter who gets elected, they keep seeing tax rates lowered for the wealthy while their own livelihoods are kept constantly in jeopardy.