Money in politics isn’t the problem, it’s how money is perceived


Money is a good predictor of who will win elections. The candidate who raises the most money wins the elections a vast majority of the time. Additionally, their is a direct correlation between the amount of money raised and the point spread of victory. More money means bigger victory. These effects are increased in close races. Money is also perhaps the most reliable way to defeat an incumbent. Candidates need money to win. And those who donate are more influential to American public policy.

Calls continue that Hillary Clinton’s entire tenure as Secretary of State and her involvement in the Clinton Foundation was a pay-for-play scheme. Such calls extend beyond Hillary Clinton. It takes an incredible amount of money to run for political office. This necessitates big money donations from wealthy donors. For all the talk about small donations from the common American public it is certainly not these donations which drive political campaigns. They can’t because it simply isn’t enough. This is where pay-for-play accusations gain credibility.

But pay-for-play isn’t the real problem with money in politics. Politicians, both real and potential, need money to run for office. Not just because running for office costs money, but because money means you’re serious. Money is an issue of perception of credibility.

Members of Congress are expected to spend 4 hours a day fundraising. Twice as much as any other activity, according to documents from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This is necessary because it is expected that members of Congress will raise a set amount of money each and every day. It is their first responsibility. Even if a member has a “safe seat” they must still raise money.

Furthermore, members’ ability to fundraise affects their formal power and influence in Congress. Members who thrive in raising money are significantly more likely to rise to leadership positions, and increases their ability to garner the votes of other members of Congress. The ability to rise to leadership and garner votes affects how members are portrayed in the media. The media then influences the opinions and voting behavior of the American public. And the reputation of the member publicly and within their party then affects the monetary support for that candidate in the next election.


So Donald Trump is right when he says, “I will tell you that our system is broken…I gave to many people before this — before two months ago I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That’s a broken system”. And Hillary Clinton is correct in saying, “We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political system, and drowning out the voices of too many everyday Americans…Our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee”.

But such statements miss the point.

Hillary Clinton and the DNC just had their biggest fundraising month everAs did Donald Trump. Which to some indicates an increase in the viability of his political campaign, and by proxy Donald Trump as a political candidate. Except this argument conflates candidate credibility with ability to raise donations. If this is truly the case then the ability of a political candidate to win an election has very little to do with their credentials or policies but rather their ability to small talk. If a candidate has a demonstrated ability to raise money this signals their viability, which thereby increases donations, and so on and so on.

Money in politics is self-reinforcing. Yes, candidates need money to run for office, but they don’t necessarily need big money. Big money is needed not to run but to win. Big money is needed to win because big money signals credibility.

So money is both a detriment to the political system and necessary for its continued functioning because money is a signal of credibility and viability. Money is a perception problem.

And here is Jon Oliver on Congressional fundraising.


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