21 April 2014

Campaign contributions and political accountability

"OF course money is corrupting," Charles Krauthammer writes in his latest column, "Money distorts. There is no denying the unfairness of big contributors buying access unavailable to the everyday citizen." On the other hand, Krauthammer remains convinced that "of course money is speech." Without proof, he claims that "the most disdainful dismissers of this argument are editorialists and incumbent politicians who -- surprise! -- already enjoy access to vast audiences." Had Krauthammer consulted more working-class Americans, or did he not recognize Republicans only as working Americans, he might find more widespread rejection of the Buckley v. Valeo principle. However, let's concentrate on his concession about the corrupting effect of money, which positions Krauthammer somewhat to the left of Buckley-era jurisprudence, according to which only explicit quid-pro-quo arrangements fall to the level of corruption. The columnist writes this week that he thought he had a formula that reconciled the money-is-speech principle with appropriate concerns about corruption: full disclosure of donors and donations. "Let transparency be the safeguard against corruption," he writes, "As long as you know who is giving what to whom, you can look for, find and, if necessary, prosecute corrupt connections between donor and receiver."

In theory, then, Krauthammer has no problem with the idea that politicians can be held accountable, either at the polls or elsewhere if necessary, for the donations they receive. If you learn that your representative, or his challenger, is getting money from the Koch brothers -- or, from the opposite perspective, from George Soros -- you act accordingly.  Full disclosure has been a progressive principle for at least the last century, but now Krauthammer can no longer endorse it. It turns out to be one thing to hold politicians accountable for the people who give them money, and another, far worse in Krauthammer's view, to hold the donors accountable for the causes they fund. He's predictably outraged over the recent debacle at Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox search engine, whose CEO designate had to step down when it was learned that he had donated money in support of Proposition 8, the California anti-gay marriage referendum. Picking up on his "liberal totalitarianism" thread from last week, Krauthammer accuses gay-rights activists of drawing up a blacklist of Prop 8 supporters, others of whom have been "hounded" from their posts of honor or responsibility. For Krauthammer this is wrong because there is no possibility of corruption in financial support for a referendum, since you're not electing anybody. Prop 8 supporters are being blacklisted solely for their opinions, in his view. But people who donate to candidates are also being targeted unfairly, at least according to Krauthammer's interpretation of the scandal over IRS auditing of tax-exemption claims.

"Blacklist" is a dynamite word, of course. While Krauthammer doesn't go all the way and accuse gay-rights activists of McCarthyite tactics, he does attempt to remind readers that it was once people on the left who needed safeguards against reprisals. It was once urgently reasonable, he notes, to allow the NAACP to keep its membership lists secret. In such a case, and at the present time, individual immunity from unjust reprisal trumps any public right to know. In his words, " If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression."

Again, Krauthammer writes like a true liberal -- who else believes that free expression is the "ultimate core political good?" And it's hard to say he's wrong on principle without surrendering your right to criticize the anti-communist blacklists of the McCarthy era. If it was wrong to deny people jobs because of their beliefs in the 1950s, it must be so in the 2010s.  At the same time, leaving behind the Mozilla controversy to survey the wider world of political contributions, does it follow that accountability is a one-way street, that politicians can be held accountable for taking money but no one should be held accountable for giving it? It depends on the degree of accountability, I suppose. The simplest form of accountability for a candidate in an election is to deny him your vote if you don't like where he gets his money from. You deny him your vote because you assume that, if elected, he'll do the bidding of his hateful donors. From the classical liberal perspective, the donor is simply expressing his opinion -- and Buckley v. Valeo requires courts, at least, to see campaign donations that way.  In American politics the presumption is that the donor promotes those who already share his opinions, and doesn't use his money to change the minds of candidates, though commercials obviously are meant to change the minds of voters. Yet we have the recent spectacle of Republicans currying favor with Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas. Ideally, I suppose, each potential candidate merely intends to prove to Adelson objectively that he already best reflects Adelson's views and is most deserving of Adelson's money. But isn't it just a little naive to assume that no potential candidate would consider changing his views if it improved his chances of getting money from Adelson -- or from whoever his counterpart may be as a Democratic sugar daddy? To deny absolutely any principle of accountability for donors is to assume that such a scenario can't happen -- that a preponderant display of wealth can't change the course of political debate. But what if it does? It's still just Adelson's opinion, right? If we hold him accountable for his opinions we're no better than McCarthy, right? That's where liberals seem to be stuck, so long as their arguments against the equation of money, speech and opinion remain unpersuasive to the courts. Liberals, and to an extent their conservative cousins, like to talk about rights, but the question of campaign contributions may prove ultimately a question of right and wrong for which liberals have no answer. That will depend on what each of us, and all of us together, decide the "ultimate core political good" to be.


Anonymous said...

In a civilized society, we are all accountable to one another. If Mr. Krauthammer doesn't like that fact, he should consider resigning from the human race and spending the rest of his life pondering the natural law of wilderness survival. At least then he will only be accountable to himself.

Samuel Wilson said...

Liberals in general seek to limit the scope of accountability for expressions of opinion. For them accountability doesn't encompass getting punched in the face, losing your livelihood, having a fatwa declared against you, etc. But liberals are also reluctant to concede that an opinion can be so wrong that it would be harmful if persisted in. For the last century or so mankind has been testing that premise, and the jury's still out.