The Internet and Campaign Finance

In his piece, “Against Transparency”, Lawrence Lessig dives deep into an argument for why government disclosure, even on certain salient issues like campaign finance, isn’t necessarily an absolute good when it comes to political discourse in the United States. I was specifically intrigued by his use of the Hillary Clinton example and what would eventually become the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.

As First Lady, Clinton worked to prevent the bill from passing but soon after becoming a Senator, she voted for it twice in 2001. In between, she received $140,000 in campaign contributions from the financial services industry. To the standard interested voter it seemed as though the shift in her position was no fluke and serves as a perfect example of the influence special interests can have on policy with their donations.  Lessig, however, isn’t convinced: in his opinion, there are plenty of alternative explanations for Clinton’s vote—including the fact that her constituency moved from the American public at large to the more finance-based economy in New York. Furthermore, he asserts that it’s this kind of fallacious, “after this, therefore because of this” reasoning that unfairly contributes to the cynicism that has come to define the American electorate.

Though no one except Clinton knows with certainty why she changed her vote, I wonder whether Lessig’s broader point can be sustained. With the proliferation of transparency sites like OpenSecrets.org, it’s relatively easy to see contributions to Congress—but can “netizens” realistically be faulted for harping on the influence these funds might have on the creation of policy? A review of extant social science literature appears to think not. In a 2008 meta-analysis on the major independent studies regarding the effects of campaign finance on legislative votes, Doug Roscoe and Shannon Jenkins conclude that, controlling for confounding factors, about one third of all roll call votes in Congress are influenced by special interests—a finding that has persisted in even the most sophisticated vote-choice models. If this evidence is to be believed, the cynicism of the American voter would seem justified.

But what role does the Internet play in all of this? To start, I think Lessig is correct when he notes that, in individual cases like Clinton’s, correlation does not equal causation and the uninformed use of campaign transparency sites will inevitably lead voters to conflate the two. Regardless, I’m not sure that the results are all that devastating. Even if the individual Congressperson isn’t necessarily influenced by special interests, the collective body of representatives seems to have been—and that’s a problem. If open disclosure policies that are supported by the Internet’s accessibility lead to broader support for good substantive policy changes (public financing of elections?) at the cost of a few potentially misplaced thoughts of vote buying, is the effect really that perverse?

I guess it depends on whether you consider individual voters’ reasoning for why they perceive things a certain way more important than whether they actually support what’s in their—and potentially our democratic system’s—best interest. Given all of the spin we see used to turn issues upside down, appealing to the less rational side of voters’ psyches, I’m inclined to think that truly representative outcomes, regardless of the reasoning people use to get there, are about all for which one could reasonably ask. In the case of campaign finance (and I’m sure many others), perhaps the ends really do justify the means.

2 comments to The Internet and Campaign Finance

  • Rachel

    I think that Lessig is being silly. Disclaimer: As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a huge Hillary detractor. Never a fan. But that doesn't change the fact that the transformation of Clinton's constituency from "the American public at large" to New York is a matter of public record. So is the fact that there are more finance people in New York. I agree with Floyd Abrams that this wasn't such a big deal and with David Weinberger that people can make plenty of damaging and mostly unfounded assertions without greater transparency and the data it compiles.

    What's even sillier than Lessig spending a whole article arguing that correlation does not equal causation therefore we should not be provided with data that shows correlations is his comparison to the slow, hard death of print journalism. Talk about correlation doesn't equal causation! Just because the Internet killed newspapers' business models doesn't mean that all cases in which the Internet makes information freely accessible are bad. Lessig over-exploits a link between the evolution of journalism and the evolution of government watchdoggery. To say that local papers *occasionally* did good investigative work that ProPublica now has to do merits about a sentence, not a central hunk of his argument.

    I was also interested by the format of this "debate." The length of the articles made them reasonable to read (except for Lessig's response, which was a slog). But I could feel the time lag between the pieces: this was not a conversation. I guess the form was a little alien to me, because it implied a slowness of process that I'm not used to in my media. I would have been more comfortable with an edited transcript of a debate such as is often found on NYT blogs. That said, I'm sure no debate would have been as substantive, with arguments and examples as readily at hand.

  • Zach

    I would agree with Lessig's argument that government disclosure is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to public discourse. And even regardless of the productivity of public discourse, I think the government should have the right to withhold certain information from the public. How people perceive information based on their limited knowledge of whatever issue is at hand is often imprecise and not very well-grounded. With that being said, it seems like a likely possibility that there could be an increase in open disclosure policies when you consider the overwhelming growth of the internet (as it relates to political participation). It is tough to tell whether this will serve as a benefit or detriment to the overall quality and functionality of government, for I personally believe that a certain lack of knowledge by the public allows the government to operate more effectively.

    In addressing the proliferation of transparency sites like OpenSecrets.org, I think the creators of these sites directly interfere with government operations. Information is withheld from the public sphere for a reason and the people who engineer these transparency sites have no right or authority to leak their OWN government's secrets. Some could even argue that, to a certain degree, it is unpatriotic.

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