Is Corruption Destroying American Democracy? Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America

Fordham University Law Professor Zephyr Teachout earned a place of distinction among anticorruption activists for making the fight against corruption the centerpiece of her spirited campaign to oust the incumbent in New York’s September 9 gubernatorial primary (as well as a good deal of attention on this blog, click here and here).  Her effort also deserves special recognition in academia: surely no other professor has produced evidence to undercut her own academic work so fast as Professor Teachout. Appearing days before the primary, her Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin to Citizens United contends that large private donations to political candidates so favor candidates supported by the wealthy that the future of American democracy is at risk.  Yet while preliminary figures suggest the well-known, well-organized incumbent outspent her by somewhere between 40 to 50 to 1, she did surprisingly well, polling 180,336 votes to the incumbent’s 327,150.  If money so dominates American political campaigns, it is hard to see why Professor Teachout got so far with so little. Of course, she did lose the election.  More to the point, even if she had won, her claim that money is overwhelming American elections cannot be dis-proven by a single example.  It may be that her race was an outlier and that most of the time, money does talk.  So what does the accumulated research on the influence of money on American elections show? That money has little or no effect on election outcomes.  As a recent paper by Professor Jeff Milyo reports,

“[T]here is something of a scholarly consensus, at least for campaign spending in congressional races.  . . .[I]n stark contrast to the popular wisdom. . . that elections are for sale to the highest bidder[,]. . . decades of social science research consistently reveal a far more limited role for campaign spending. . . .  [T]he best efforts at identifying the treatment effect of money in congressional races yield fairly similar substantive results: candidate spending has very modest to negligible causal impact on candidate vote shares.”

It could be that the real effect of campaign contributions comes once the candidate has been elected.  Money might only tip the electoral scales slightly, but that slight tip might be enough to dictate how a politician votes on legislation once elected.  A plausible hypothesis, and one commonly assumed to be true in popular accounts of the American political system, but again the weight of academic research is to the contrary.  In August 2013 a group of American scholars summed up the learning on the influence of campaign contributions and voting by members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  In their words, it is “weak in some studies to non-existent in others.”  Much of this research, they noted, was conducted before the recent polarization of the electorate:  “It is therefore even less likely today that one would expect to find contributions — and especially contributions disentangled from lobbying — as explanations for public roll call votes.” So money’s baleful influence comes through lobbyists?  For those looking for conclusive evidence that this where money does the talking, the scholarly literature again disappoints.  Here is how Professor David Lowry’s article 2013 summarized that literature:

“The empirical literature as a whole remains extremely mixed in terms of finding evidence that organized interests influence policy. Indeed, three major surveys of the literature. . . reached remarkably similar conclusions. . . .‘[T]he unavoidable conclusion is that PACs and direct lobbying sometimes strongly influence Congressional voting, sometimes have marginal influence and sometimes fail to exert influence’. Even more telling . . . most fail to even get their issue on the policy agenda. [These recent] findings are broadly consistent with . .. earlier findings [that] described the world of lobbying as lacking any of the certainty of a supermarket with its well-defined roles, goals and prices. Rather, the lobbying environment is one governed by uncertainty in goals, means and, especially, the relationships between them.

“Virtually all sociologists and political scientists publishing in the top journals hypothesize that … interest groups … influence public policy, and it is safe to assume that they generally expect the impact to be substantial. This hypothesis is not as well supported by the data as we might expect. The impact of political organizations is significantly different from zero, by conventional statistical tests, only about half the time, and important in policy terms (as assessed by the authors) in just over a fifth.  Indeed, this conclusion almost certainly underestimates the number of failures given the usual bias against publishing null findings.”

Given the weight of scholarly evidence on the role of money in American politics and policymaking, perhaps Professor Teachout’s claim that the private financing of political campaigns is “very dangerous to the health of the nation with “potentially tragic” consequences (p.8) is a tad overstated?  That is not to say that it is not without its flaws and that there are not sensible reforms that could improve its operation.  But those, and a longer look at the remedies Professor Teachout proposes, are for another post.

4 thoughts on “Is Corruption Destroying American Democracy? Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America

  1. I am sympathetic to the view that much of the money spent on elections and lobbying is wasteful (from the perspective of the person spending the money) (see, e.g., cites listed here and this paper of mine here But before the data analyses you summarize can be relied upon as evidence that contributions and lobbying don’t affect democracy, you have to assess the power of the studies’ methods, which the meta-analyses you cite do not do (nor do most of the studies). A (nearly) blind witness says he did not see anything — that might be because nothing was there to see, or because he didn’t see what was there to see. On lobbying, to quote Lowry, “Much of what is substantively meaningful influence [by lobbyists] will always remain unobservable.” On contributions, the standard view is not that contributions buy roll call votes (which would amount to criminal bribery), but that they buy access, through which lobbyists help shape agendas, something that is much harder to observe, measure and relate to contributions. In the end, as Teachout and Larry Lessig have been emphasizing, it might be best to take elected officials at their word, and they overwhelmingly report spending an increasing amount of time raising funds, and that while they try to remain unaffected by it when it comes to policy, they also generally acknowledge that they, like all humans, are affected by relationships formed through fundraising, and by the fact that they understand their contributors as helping get them (re)-elected — even if the political scientist toolkit can’t prove that to the be the case after the fact.

    • I think my own views on this — admittedly based on general impressions of the existing literature, rather than a careful analysis — fall somewhere in between. John, I agree with you that absence of evidence is not (necessarily) evidence of absence, and that the existing methods political scientists have to try to detect the causal impact of political spending on government behavior are imperfect (putting it mildly). My sense is that you are also correct in saying (1) most of the spending doesn’t take the form of crude cash-for-roll-call-votes, but rather buying access, and (2) elected officials spend a ridiculously large amount of time fundraising.

      All that said, I think the failure of political scientists to find stronger evidence that political spending (especially campaign donations) has a big causal effect on elected officials’ behavior is striking. I think a lot of people would have thought — and the rhetoric you see in a lot of the critical commentary by Lessig, Teachout, and others strongly implies — that it should be pretty easy to detect the impact of campaign cash on voting behavior: that even with the admittedly crude methods available to political scientists, the evidence of de facto quid pro quos ought to be so overwhelming that it should be pretty easy to detect in the data. But (at least to the best of my understanding) we don’t see that. And that is itself a bit surprising. To take your metaphor, maybe the witness is severely nearsighted (I think “mostly blind” is a bit unfair to the more sophisticated researchers who have looked into this), but if the allegation was that a herd of wildebeest was stampeding down Main Street, it’s still striking that the witness didn’t notice anything.

      Two final thoughts here: First, I don’t think anyone is arguing that political spending has no impact on elected officials’ behavior — the question is how much impact it has. Second, insofar as money does influence politics (and I can’t help believe that it does), it may be important to distinguish among the ways in which this influence might work.

  2. I think a few points should be made here:

    1) Prof Milyo is a senior fellow at the Cato institute – a libertarian thinktank formerly kown as the Charles Koch Foundation.

    2) The citations attributed to Prof. Lowery are not really his: they are quotes from others that appear in his article (Baumgartner and Leech, 1998 and Burstein and Linton 2002 respectively).

    3) This post does not mention any of the evidence Teachout is using, which makes it impossible to judge for ourselves which side has the more plausible arguments.

    Corruption does put any democracy at risk, there is no discussion about that. Teachout makes a very interesting point that the legal definition of corruption in the US has been narrowed, so that many acts formerly qualified as corruption no longer are. But redefining an issue does not really make it go away. I’d like t read more about that.

    • I’ll leave it to Rick to respond as he sees fit to your three enumerated points, but I did want to touch on something you said in your concluding paragraph. You note that “Teachout makes a very interesting point that the legal definition of corruption in the US has been narrowed[.]” I don’t think that’s quite right: Although Teachout convincingly establishes that the term “corruption” had a much broader meaning in the 18th century, that’s not the same as establishing that the term had a broader _legal_ meaning, or that certain acts that would have been considered _illegal_ in the 18th century are now considered legal, due to a change in the definition of corruption. This may seem like nitpicking, but I think it’s an important distinction.

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