Can Campaign Finance Reform Be The Cornerstone of a Progressive Movement?

MoCo activist Dylan Shelton reminds us that fair elections laws, in place or being sought in local counties, are only one step. Power has many ways of buying elections and progressives have to recognize and combat all of them to win.

/By Dylan Shelton/ If you’ve been to any progressive function in your community you’ve probably witnessed the following: a person (often male, often older and often white) faces the crowd and argues, “All of the things we’re talking about are great, but unless we get money out of our elections, we’re stuck with the same representatives corrupted by corporate money.”

 The notion that politicians are uniquely positioned to fall under corporate influence is nothing new in America (think Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Americans interested in reforming campaign finance has grown since the disastrous Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court decision. The problem is, despite the growth in interest, almost no one thinks it’s the most pressing issue facing Americans. [2] And for the progressive left that advocates for a Constitutional Amendment implementing campaign finance reform, this could be a problem.

 This isn’t to say getting corporate cash out of elections sidetracks the left; Howard County and other places that are fighting hard for public financing of elections should be congratulated and emulated. However, the left should critique the particular style of advocacy campaign finance reform activists engage in and seriously confront its structural and ideological blind spots. Doing so will help determine whether it deserves a prominent place in our organizing for a mass movement aimed at creating a radically progressive political environment.

 Campaign finance reform activists claim that the progressive reforms we hope to achieve in the areas of environment, social, and economic justice are all stymied by entrenched politicians empowered by corporate cash. They argue that Calling for a Constitutional Convention to create an amendment that limits the ability of corporations to shell out money for elections will mean new politicians with fresh visions of the future and more beholden to their voters.

 It should be questioned whether this claim and strategy will pave the way for progressive reform or could serve to embolden a truly transformative left political movement. From the outset, one can see the strategy as problematic because it presumes all social and political change occurs through the political process.

 A look at the historical record shows that some of the most substantial changes to American life have been radical actions, often illegal at the time, and perpetrated by a collective struggle engaging masses of people. The catalyst for change has not happened by petitions, bills or political processes but by sit-in strikes, illegally sitting at a lunch counter, or other organizing methods often ended by the swing of a police baton.

 Viewed through this lens, the political process is frequently a reaction by the ruling class to placate the actions of a revolutionary underclass. Consider the labor movement and civil rights movement. The 1934 Wagner Act cemented the right to join a union and collectively bargain, but bureaucratized the process of workplace struggle and prioritized commerce (i.e. the ongoing functioning of capitalism) rather than the rights of the worker. A. Philip Randolph’s 1963 speech to the crowds at the March on Washington demanded serious leftist reforms to the nation for “jobs and freedom.” For instance, Randolph proclaimed:

 “And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?”

 None of the above sentiment was adequately represented in the civil rights legislation that later passed through the political process. Proceeding through political channels actually weakens, and acts against, the intentions of a more radical movement demanding equality and freedom.

 Not only is the path taken by the common campaign finance activist a poor conduit for their goal, but also the goal itself is narrowly limited to the function of money in politics. If the end point is to remove the influence of corporations, or “The 1%,” from politics by political means, then it is worth remembering the words of feminist-anarchist Lucy Parsons:

 “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”

 Counting politicians as among the other resources hoarded by the wealthy, one can hardly expect them to sit idly by and watch as their wealth is democratically expropriated from them. Even if they did, their money is like water and will leak through barriers, finding the path of least resistance back into the political process through new or unexpected channels.

 Most of the channels we already know. Politicians disproportionately come out of professions and backgrounds that make them independently wealthy. From the founding of the nation, politics has been a place for people of wealth and prestige to widen the scope of their power. In Maryland, we know particularly well the woes of independently wealthy businesspeople like David Trone, Kathleen Matthews and the current Governor injecting their own money into their campaigns.

 Besides the independently wealthy, the groups advocating for campaign finance reform don’t have much to say about the institutions set up to protect incumbents. The DNC and DCCC have grown to gargantuan sizes in recent years, flush with cash from corporate funders. The express goal of these institutions is to protect establishment Democrats. There are also independent corporations that exist for the sole purpose of aiding party institutions in campaigns by selling their consulting experience, or digital voter targeting information. Both are immensely powerful tools protecting deep-pocketed or entrenched politicians, and campaign finance reform does not touch them.

 Finally, politicians overwhelmingly get their public policy proposals, advice, and studies from think tanks funded by the same interests we hope to target by campaign finance reform. These think tanks control the narrative of what policies are possible and which are not. They work, in some instances directly, for particular corporations, international capital, or private wealth and there is no sizeable leftist, anti-capitalist replacement for them currently in existence. This is a prime example of how getting money out of politics would not be a substantial step towards progressive policy, the same institutions would be writing, studying and proposing legislation funded by the very same interests seeking status quo.

 Getting money out of politics doesn’t change the structures and institutions within which politicians operate. A conservative Democratic Party elite, corporations supplying campaign logistics, and the same think tanks promoting neoliberal solutions would still exist to bolster a status quo politician in elections and afterwards. The left would not necessarily be closer to implementing legislation bringing about social, environmental, and economic justice.

 Refusing corporate money is a sign of deeply held progressive values, and the left should get behind those politicians who expose that belief. But we also need candidates who can continue our organizing for an end to oppression and future of radical equality in the political sphere.

 We should recognize that real radical change occurs when a person understands both their place in society and the material realities impeding their access to a decent life -- and fights back collectively. Advocating for getting money out of politics using procedural methods can’t do this but collective action aimed at a transforming what people think is possible can; it’s the politicians who get behind such actions who are worth our attention.


Dylan Shelton is a Montgomery County activist and member of the Progressive Maryland Economic Security Team. He previously blogged here about a fight against antilabor legislation in Montgomery.