Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities.

Author:Phillips, Michael R.
 
FREE EXCERPT

Inside Campaign Finance, Myths and Realities. By Frank J Sorauf New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992. Pp. x, 274. $30.

Reform-oriented commentators have labeled Frank Sorauf's(1) contributions to the campaign finance debate "anti-reform writing."(2) This description implies that Sorauf sides either with those satisfied with the campaign-finance-system status quo(3) or with free-market zealots who seek to dismantle the entire campaign finance regulatory system.(4) In reality, Sorauf falls within neither of these camps. Rather, he merely finds the dysfunctions of the present system less serious than reformers portray them and, accordingly, favors solutions less radical than those that most reformers propose. The reformers' misleading characterization of Sorauf may reveal less about his work than it does about their own prickliness toward anyone not adhering to their Chicken-Little outlook on the political world.(5)

A more intriguing question than how to categorize Sorauf's writing is why he has chosen to revisit a topic that he covered comprehensively only four years earlier in Money in American Elections.(6) The germ of an answer may lie in his more recent book's full title: Inside Campaign Finance. Myths and Realities. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the "myths" Sorauf refers to are the characterizations of the American political system that reformers have made and that politicians and the mass media have faithfully parroted; the "realities" are those that Sorauf and other political scientists have exposed and that the general public has largely ignored. Inside Campaign Finance is not so much about reforming the campaign finance system as it is about reforming the reformers.

After a brief explanation of the history of campaign finance and the legal framework established by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)(7) and the Supreme Court's ruling in Buckley v. Valeo,(8) Sorauf sets the stage for the conflict between "myth" and "reality." Reform positions, he explains, are rooted in a progressive world view that both distrusts political money and sees it as the underlying cause of most political events (p. 24). According to Sorauf, this view "has come to dominate the American debate over campaign finance" (p. 24), so much so that "the most singular aspect of the debate ... is its one-sidedness" (p. 23). The reformers' hegemony, he complains, "has created a separate epistemology of campaign finance ... based on its own rules of evidence and grounded in the premise of the monetary root of all evil."(9)

Central to the ascendance of the reform perspective on campaign finance, according to Sorauf, is an unholy alliance between reformers and the national news media. The inherent advantage of the progressive view is that it "fits the imperatives of contemporary journalism," namely, finding simplistic, morally tinged, and easily recounted stories to feed to impatient audiences (p. 24). Reformers' portrayals of the campaign finance system as thoroughly corrupted by monetary influence meet these criteria, however inaccurate those depictions may be. On the other hand, "[t]here is little room -- and little consumer tolerance -- for the hedges and caveats, the uncertainties and complexities, of the academic accounts" that Sorauf and his colleagues offer (p. 25). Consequently, the media communicates the reform message, casually describing campaign accounts as "war chests," PACs as "special-interest representatives," and campaign contributions as "sewer money" (p. 26).

Sorauf explains that there are profound differences between political scientists' outlook on campaign finance issues and the reform mantra. In contrast to academic researchers, who view campaign finance as a subject of "endless complexity, of ambiguous causes, and of shared and dispersed influence," reformers' portrayals are "of dominant actors and great events, of clear and dramatic causes, a mesmerizing pageant of power and corruption" (p. 26). The propagation of these "Progressive-populist myths" (p. 163), Sorauf says, creates a Plato's cave effect, obscuring the complex realities of campaign finance and compelling citizens "to watch the shadows projected on the vast wall in front of them ... [in a] dance of distorted images" (p. 189).

The reform movement attacks our present campaign finance system on three basic grounds. First, the reform movement asserts that dependence on private "special interest" funding results in pervasive corruption of the political system.(10) One reform commentator representing this view claims that "under our present system of campaign finance, politicians and interest groups engage routinely ... in felonious bribery that goes unprosecuted primarily because the crime is so pervasive."(11) Second, reformers complain that the campaign finance system creates powerful proincumbent biases in the electoral process that defeat democratic...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP