ELB Book Corner: Primo and Milyo (Post 2 of 4): The Cynical Public

I am pleased to welcome to ELB Book Corner David Primo and Jeff Milyo, writing about their new book, Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What The Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters (U Chicago Press 2020). Here is their second of four posts:

ELB Book Corner

In our first blog post about our new book Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters, we explained that the public is uninformed and misinformed about campaign finance. Today, we delve into what the public thinks about campaign finance.

Cynical is perhaps the best word to describe American attitudes toward money in politics—and politics generally. In our 2015 and 2016 surveys of the American public, 81% believe the campaign finance system is corrupt, and 89% believe there is too much money in politics. (Think about how hard it is to get that many Americans to agree on anything!)

These cynical attitudes may seem to create an open-and-shut case for campaign finance reform. But, as we document in chapter 5 of our book, Americans see corruption everywhere—so much so that it raises questions about how campaign finance reform could ever improve attitudes toward government. We asked respondents about nine factors that may affect a politician’s policy positions, such as personal financial advantage or wanting to secure favorable media coverage. Reassuringly, 84% of Americans think that it’s corrupt to adopt a policy position for personal financial advantage. Less reassuringly, nearly two-thirds of Americans think it’s corrupt to adopt policy positions under pressure from party leaders or to secure favorable media coverage—suggesting the term “corruption” has become a catchall for a broad distaste for politics.

Perceptions of corruption also have an ideological bias—what we call contingent cynicism. Chapter 5 of the book presents the results of some survey experiments in which we vary question wording in a random fashion to see whether views about corruption depend on the actors involved. For example, 47% of liberals believe that it is likely corrupt for an elected official to meet with a corporate lobbyist, but only 20% of liberals view a meeting with a union lobbyist as corrupt. Is a campaign contribution from the NRA or Planned Parenthood corrupt? The answer, it turns out, depends heavily on whether you support the NRA or Planned Parenthood’s policy positions.

As with many other policy issues, Americans are divided in their support for campaign finance reform, with disclosure being the most widely supported of the reforms we ask about. Yet, even as some reforms have majority support (masking a partisan divide we discuss in chapter 6 of the book), Americans don’t expect much to come of them. Perhaps sensing the futility of reform given their cynical state, Americans are skeptical that campaign finance reforms will make much of a difference in reducing corruption. On a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “the right package of reforms will greatly reduce corruption” and 7 being “reforms are ineffective and politics will always be corrupt,” only a third of Americans come down anywhere on the side of reforms having a positive impact.

These findings raise serious questions about the reform enterprise. If Americans see corruption everywhere, and especially when observing the behavior of political opponents, is there really hope for campaign finance reform to reduce the appearance of corruption? To put a finer point on it, does the Court’s famous “appearance of corruption” standard have any meaning in light of our findings?

Reformers, however, might reasonably point out that just because Americans say they don’t think reforms will work doesn’t mean that reforms are ineffective in addressing the appearance of corruption. In our next blog post, we’ll delve into whether public trust and confidence in government is improved by tightened restrictions on campaign contributions.

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