The Clare Spark Blog

March 17, 2010

Joyce Appleby on campaign finance reform

Filed under: 1 — clarelspark @ 9:18 pm
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Dr. Joyce Appleby

Joyce Appleby, an historian of great distinction and versatility, has contributed a guest blog. Some of my friends believe that it is impossible to reduce the role that money plays in politics. To me, this suggests that we are doomed to terminal corruption of the political process, and that we are indeed in a crisis of representation. Professor Appleby proposes a constitutional amendment reasserting a right that I would think to be implicit in the notion of a democratic republic. After all the political wars, hot and cold, that have been fought to establish voting rights, it is intolerable for the current situation to prevail indefinitely.  

[Joyce Appleby:] “Television changed American politics in ways that no one could have foreseen.  It’s effectiveness as a campaign medium became obvious right away.  Soon getting volunteers to walk precincts, stuff envelopes, and hand out literature became less important and finding the money to pay for tv spots more – much more.   Money had always played a part in American electoral politics, but the cost of television advertising magnified it greatly.  It takes a lot of small donors to make up for the corporation, union, or political action committee that can write big checks.   The influence of big money is apparent right now in the pharmaceutical industry’s reaction to health care reform and the bankers’ response to reforms of the financial system.  Congress has passed laws to limit the money in electoral campaigns but the reforms have either been ineffective or been knocked down by the Supreme Court which says that dollars are like voices, protected by freedom of speech.  The only sure way to diminish the role of  money in electoral politics is to reassert the people’s power to control elections through a constitutional amendment.  Something like this:  Citizens of the United States have the right to determine the duration, financing, and form of all campaigns for elections to offices established in this Constitution.”


  1. Michael Callis — I agree with you; but I still think the appearance of “innocence” (in the proposed constitutional amendment by Joyce Appleby) is part and parcel of its essence.

    I assume the amendment is a sincere and idealistic attempt to stop what many people take to be a negative reality — the influence of money in politics. Why? It’s on this level that most people make their political decisions (but, of course, not the politicians and operatives themselves, as you rightly point out).

    Certainly such an amendment when pitched to the American people: a)) would be touted as a clean, wholesome “reform” measure that opposes evil “money”; and b)) most Americans who end up supporting it would never look beyond that surface appeal. Most Americans are not informed enough to be Machiavellians (in the good sense; i.e., wise and discerning of human reality).

    But there’s a deeper reason….

    The best book that explains this is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (2002). He finds American political conflict to be based on two competing visions; they, in turn, are based on differing views of human nature: the “constrained” and the “unconstrained.”

    In the constrained (conservative) vision, the nature of the human is seen as limited and fixed; exemplified in the writings of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

    According to Sowell:

    “Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed, Smith attempted to determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint. […] In practice, people on many occasions ‘sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others,’ according to Smith, but this was due to such intervening factors as devotion to moral principles, to concepts of honor and nobility, rather than to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. […] Despite the fact that this was a moral question, Smith’s answer was essentially economic — a system or moral incentives, a set of trade-offs rather than a real solution by changing man. […] In both his moral and economic analyses, Smith relied on incentives rather than dispositions to get the job done.”

    In the unconstrained (liberal) vision the nature of the human is considered unlimited and open to radical change, and it is entirely possible for humans to rely on their sincerity and idealism to create a better society — assuming the society is changed to allow the proper cultural/economic surroundings. Rousseau and William Godwin epitomize these ideas.

    According to Sowell:

    “Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being ‘of the essence of virtue,’ and the virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness. Unintentional social benefits were treated by Godwin as scarcely worthy of notice. […] Godwin had little use for ‘those moralists’ — quite conceivably meaning Smith — ‘who think only of stimulating men to do good deeds by considerations of frigid prudence and mercenary self-interests,’ instead of seeking to stimulate the ‘generous and magnanimous sentiment of our natures.’ […] The notion that ‘the human being is highly plastic material’ [Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom, Politics, Economics and Welfare (1967), p. 522] is still central among many contemporary thinkers who share the unconstrained vision. The concept of ‘solution’ remains central to this vision. A solution is achieved when it is no longer necessary to make a trade-off, even if the development of that solution entailed costs now past. The goal of achieving a solution is in fact what justifies the initial sacrifices or transitional conditions which might otherwise be considered unacceptable.”

    That’s why I think Joyce Appleby (and those who support her amendment) likely think of themselves as virtuous and having the best of intentions; appealing to Americans in a way that naturally inflames their sense of righteousness in opposing the “money-grubbing” aspect of politics. The love of doing the “right and compassionate thing” — you understand — is thought to trump any realistic probing of actual consequences in practical human interactions; such probing might assume human nature to be “low” and “primitive” and “reactionary”; therefore, constrained.

    So, a political science analysis of the amendment’s after-effects, a criticism based on the school of realism, would shatter the “moral beauty” of the intention of the amendment — as you have shown. This would stimulate the corporatist liberal to react as if his/her personal morality was being questioned: How could you do such a thing? Don’t you believe in a society of higher moral purpose? Are you only interested in making money and supporting the big corporations and their lobbyists? Don’t you want to keep the evil impact of filthy lucre out of democracy?!

    See what I mean?

    As you have pointed out, the new amendment would make the First Amendment into a political football — allowing any interest group combination in the public arena to justify squashing other people’s ability to speak because some are considered “good” influences on democracy (the professional word-handlers of the educated elite, of course), and others “bad” (those lowly types who use “immoral” money to buy time on TV: the big corporations and the common shop-keepers selling and trading in the noisy and disgusting marketplace).

    In summary, the consequences for the results of this amendment are far different from the sincerity of the proponents of this proposal. This gulf was the subject of my post.

    Comment by Rick Penner — April 23, 2010 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

  2. @ Rick Penner – I am not sure it even appears to be innocent. If I understand it, people could decide all the forms and financing of a campaign and what groups can or can’t give money in support of some candidate or issue. With regard to groups giving money,could “Citizens of the U.S.” decide that only unions could give money or some other preferred group can give money? Would these “Citizens” be people voting for something thereby the rules would be explicitly effected by some majority rule method? Could that come at the expense of a minority’s rights? Would such an amendment trump the freedoms the 1st Amendment guarantees? Thankfully, the Supreme Court struck down McCain-Feingold’s limits on free speech. I wonder if there is some mourning for the loss of hegemony and status of the liberal academy, and the many legacy media outlets such as the liberal newspapers and left-wing news programs – all of which are becoming marginalized or are having their influence diminish.

    Relatedly, I wonder how Dr. Appleby feels about this explosion in the ways information can be spread now. While Camille Paglia appreciates the new media outlets, I think most on the Left resent Talk Radio or Conservative News/Blogsites, and would like the Fairness Doctrine (or Localism, “Diversity Panels”) reinstated to try to limit conservative outlets. Is that the reason Dr. Appleby would prefer to set new Constitutional limits on financing campaigns as they are being done now? I would hope not.

    Comment by Michael Callis — April 23, 2010 @ 1:46 am | Reply

  3. I asked Professor Appleby for her opinion as an historian and activist, and this is what she wrote. I posted it to stimulate discussion, and thank you for your comment, Rick Penner.

    Comment by clarespark — April 20, 2010 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

  4. The amendment appears innocent but is political to the core.

    The strong bias towards corporatist liberalism on the part of reporters, writers, and editors in the mainstream media already strongly influences the population during an election; not to mention the cultural views given wide promulgation by the professionals in Hollywood, the publishing industry, the legal profession, the universities and public schools.

    The ability of business and its lobbies, of representatives of rural and suburban people outside the urban centers, of shop-owners, truck-drivers, mechanics, and religious organizations, and many others, would be severely restricted if they couldn’t contribute to the campaign by buying time in the media for their views. (They don’t own the media or sit in its boardrooms and work-offices as professionals, so how else are they going to have a say in anything except by having their representatives — lobbyists or political action groups — buy the time?)

    So how, exactly, is this amendment supposed to be fair and help democracy?

    I can’t help being cynical about such a device (the amendment) designed to deliberately restrict the opinions of everyone outside the pro-big-government centers. And it is aimed, of course, at the “evil” influence of those who deal in money and markets and buying and selling; those “unenlightened” people who run the stores and ordinary towns and are tainted by their involvement with practical affairs, earthy pursuits, raising crops, manufacturing, always focused on “grubby” pursuits such as making a living instead of trying to “change the world.”

    This amendment is not neutral. I’m calling you on it.

    Comment by Rick Penner — April 20, 2010 @ 5:12 am | Reply

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