Has money in politics corrupted the American electoral system?

Should we question the democratic credentials of a country in which it costs approximately $1 billion to become president, $10 million to become a Senator, and $1 million to become a Member of the House?


This was the question tackled in a book colloquium at Wolfson College yesterday by a panel of lawyers, political scientists, and economists in response to the thesis of Timothy Kuhner in his provocative exposé of the distorting effects of money in American politics.


The public debate of Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution was held at Wolfson College, where the panel critiqued the book’s claims that ‘crony capitalism’ in America has corrupted the political process by placing private interest above the public good.


Professor of Socio Legal Studies at Oxford Denis Galligan opened the discussion by introducing the panellists and outlining the main themes of the book, in which Kuhner argues that the Supreme Court became the architect of American plutocracy.


John W. Adams, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and co-founder of FLJS, set the scale of the problem in stark relief with the revelation that the Republican billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch intend to spend $600m to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.

Republican billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch intend to spend $600m to influence the 2016 presidential campaign


He went on to describe the decision of the Supreme Court in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission to strike down provisions of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act that had imposed limits on the amount that corporations could donate to support electoral campaigns. It is easier to oppose the decision, he said, than to articulate exactly what’s wrong with it. If we protect speech at least in part because of its value to the listener, as the Supreme Court ruled, then perhaps we also ought to protect the source of the speech. 


Dr Christopher Decker, an economist at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies in Oxford, began his remarks by highlighting the fact that one of the major achievements of industrial policy over the last 100 years has been to remove the influence of politics from the market through the establishment of independent antitrust authorities and policies of deregulation, and yet the influence of the market on politics would seem to be ever increasing, according to the thesis of the book.  


Dr Decker critiqued the ‘undue influence’ theory of corruption raised in the book by questioning whether there is in fact a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas enjoyed by a few wealthy funders. He argued instead that there may be many wealthy contributors to electoral campaigns, each with competing agendas. Dr Decker also questioned whether the fragmentation of traditional political duopolies with the success of political parties such Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and UKIP in the UK, might serve to correct the inequalities in political power.


Jacob Rowbottom, Associate Professor of Law at Oxford concluded the panel’s remarks by arguing that the central thesis of the book – that democracy and capitalism can co-exist but should be kept separate – is a relatively uncontroversial one. He characterized the Free Market Constitution of the book’s subtitle as the idea that any attempt to control or regulate money in politics is seen as a form of censorship, and that the Supreme Court’s decision effectively ruled that “money is speech”.


Taking a rather pessimistic view of the book’s prospects of bringing about meaningful change, he argued that, whatever regulations are imposed to limit campaign funding, capital will always find a way to infiltrate politics, either through the establishment of partisan think tanks, or through the undue influence exercised by media moguls. In summing up, he predicted that it would take more than a Constitutional amendment to change the political culture in the US.

It would take more than a Constitutional amendment to change the political culture in the US


The concept of free speech will be addressed in relation to religious, as opposed to political freedoms, in a lecture on Wednesday 4 March by Professor Sir Richard Sorabji.


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