There are few more-common complaints about American politics than bemoaning the role of “big money” in our elections. Though concerns about campaign finance surface more often in progressive circles, Americans of all ideological stripes report dismay at how central money has become in political campaigns. Every cycle, as the fundraising arms race ratchets up yet further, voters everywhere shake their heads in disgust at the spectacle of politicians scrambling for dollars.
This frustration is understandable—and unfortunately, it is also futile.
Cards on the table: I’m a liberal organizer turned reluctant fundraiser. Make no mistake, you will find no stronger supporter of campaign finance reform than me—a preference that has only intensified the more I’ve learned about how it actually works. (It’s all much worse even than you probably think!) But some time ago, I decided to set aside my distaste for the system we have in order to be more effective in it. I appeal to my fellow progressives to consider the same.
To be blunt: our side needs to get over its constant apologia for raising money. “Big money” in politics is probably here to stay, and we must deal with that or pay for our idealism with irrelevance. Those of us who are fighting for progressive change need to adopt a bit more pragmatism in how we engage with this system.
Why is campaign finance reform such a quixotic cause? There are three big reasons. The first is the most obvious: 2010’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision dealt a near-mortal blow to efforts to limit big money in elections. Overturning Citizens United would not only require an act of Congress, but also at least two seat changes on the Supreme Court. Don’t hold your breath.
Second, most voters don’t care much about it. Campaign finance is the kind of complicated topic that voters have a hard time understanding, even before all the misinformation offered about it. The vast majority of voters have other priorities—I mean, have you looked at the news over the last four years? We have to meet the voters where they are, not where we’d prefer them to be.
The third reason is the most interesting. In short, the two parties are becoming less and less similar in how they finance their campaigns. This makes any compromise on campaign finance even more difficult, since it is much harder to find neutral reforms.
To generalize, Republicans in North Carolina run a much more centralized fundraising operation than do the Democrats. To a greater extent than the other side, the N.C. GOP raises money for its state party and caucus leadership, which then turns around and transfers large sums into candidate campaign accounts based on estimated needs. (Turns out, Republicans love central planning!) Republicans also receive far more support from corporate “dark money” PACs, which are not supposed to be coordinated with the state party, but still mysteriously show up in all the most strategic races. Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce alone collectively spent millions boosting Republican legislative candidates last year.
The Democrats certainly raise significant sums for their state party and caucuses too, but they do not have the same deep corporate support. But Democrats do have one significant advantage: small donors online. Millions of Democrats have adopted the behavior of giving to candidates online, and their combined power has morphed into a major aspect of Democratic campaign finance. The large impact of small donor giving shows up in Democratic campaign finance reporting, where you see tens of thousands of contributors for random state House candidates.
Of course, the two parties also do a lot of the same things too, but these “growth strategies” are where the real action is. And as these strategies grow and mature, each party will go to the mat to defend them— because they have to.
Don’t get me wrong—there are plenty of good campaign finance reform ideas that could improve this system. Setting hard limits on how much parties and caucus committees can transfer into candidate campaigns would force candidates to raise their own money. There could be maximum contribution limits on giving to parties themselves. Reducing the maximum contribution limit for businesses would be a check on the enormous corporate influence in our legislature. That’s just a start.
But these are unlikely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, there’s some good news: Democrats compete fine in this system. Republicans have big advantages, but so do we.
Progressives (and our conservative friends) who are uncomfortable about the role of big money in our elections have good reason to feel that way. By all means, tell your representatives. But don’t kid yourself—changing this system will take a generation, if it ever happens at all. In the meantime, creating progressive change means winning elections. So go hit that ‘Donate’ button today.
Blair Reeves is the founder and executive director of Carolina Forward, a progressive policy non-profit dedicated to building a more prosperous North Carolina.
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