The reason money is so powerful in American politics is not because we don’t regulate it properly. It’s because of big government.

Virtually everybody agrees that money is far too influential in American politics and policy. No one really likes how much of a role money plays in primaries and electoral campaigns, and people are even more disgusted at the way in which lobbyists for a myriad of interests and organizations shape and muddle the work of both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. For this reason, one constantly encounters calls for campaign finance reform, or for greater restrictions against lobbyists. Defenders of free speech are rightly wary about this. How can one legitimately prevent someone from using his resources to speak as loudly and as clearly as possible on an issue of concern? For all the complaints of the politicians and pundits, the Supreme Court was right to overturn campaign finance reform.

In fact, the power of lobbyists is probably a much greater problem than that of campaign finance. And when Barack Obama was swept into the White House amid an inspiring call for change we can believe in, he promised to deal with it. As the Washington Post points out,

More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction — federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.

Unfortunately, Obama has not kept his pledge.

The visitor logs for Jan. 17 — one of the most recent days available — show that the lobbying industry Obama has vowed to constrain is a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave… The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama’s senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street’s most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.

The thing is, this isn’t really Obama’s fault. The reason why lobbyists (and money) have grown to play such a decisive role in American politics and policy is not because of lack of regulation; it is because government is so big. Simply put, the stakes are so high in Washington D.C., that individuals and organizations with money simply will find a way to influence what goes on there. It will be impossible to stamp that out.

I’m not making this up. In their fascinating book Winner-Take-All-Politics Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson describe how money came to play such a big role in American politics, arguing that Washington has turned its back on the middle class and placing the blame on both the Republican and the Democratic parties.

Hacker and Pierson point out that in 1970 money was not nearly the factor in American politics that it has become. What changed? From the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt to that of Lyndon B. Johnson, labor unions allied with the Democratic Party met considerable success in having their agenda regarding a variety of reforms enacted in Congress. Government grew significantly during this time, as the New Deal and the Great Society expanded its commitment to caring for the poor, labor, and the middle class, and to manipulating the economy to ensure constant prosperity and full employment. The 1960s were a golden era in terms of American equality and the progress of the middle class. Wages were high, jobs were secure, virtually everyone was happy.

Unfortunately all of this progress was built on a foundation of regulation and economic manipulation that was taking its toll on business, industry, and finance. It was only during the mid 1970s – when the economy was beginning to feel the inflation and economic strain of the policies of the previous decade – that leaders in these sectors realized the importance of organizing to defend their interests. Largely successful in derailing the agenda of the Carter administration despite solid Democratic control of all branches of government, these forces orchestrated tax cuts and massive deregulation under President Reagan. They stymied modest reform efforts and furthered deregulation under President Clinton while increasing their control over both the Republican Party and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party (represented by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as well as John Kerry and Charles Schumer).

Hacker and Pierson’s reading of this story leans left. They fail to take seriously the popular conservative backlash against these developments as represented by the Tea Party (although the Tea Party admittedly emerged as a significant player in American politics only after this book was written), focusing almost entirely on the Obama administration as the hope for the middle class.

Nevertheless, Hacker and Pierson are surprisingly silent on the lesson their own story tells. The mobilization of business, finance, and industry – which they blame for the role of money in American politics – was largely a reaction to the growth of the federal government between the 1930s and 1960s into areas it had once left unregulated. The emergence of money-power in that sense is a defensive reaction to big government rather than an orchestrated attempt to use government to advance moneyed interests.

This is not true simply for matters relating to the economy. It is worth noting that the Christian Right emerged as a powerful political force – and Evangelicalism became disturbingly politicized – at just the same time. Why? Because government was extending its power into areas Evangelical Christians once thought untouchable, and because the growth of government meant that far too much was at stake to leave politics to the world. Here too is an example of how the politicization of American society corresponds directly to the growth of American government.

The question is, given the growth of government, could things have turned out any other way? Power breeds struggle and corruption. When you have a centralized government spending trillions of dollars to regulate and manipulate the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, people with money will find a way to make sure that what that government does is compatible with their own interests. You can try to stamp out the problem in one place, through one set of laws, but the interests will quickly find another pressure point.

Most Americans – whether Democrats or Republicans – agree that money should not be so influential in American politics. This is a point of basic consensus. It would be helpful if we could start having a conversation about the way in which our growing government has made this inevitable. Big government has some advantages, but it also carries tremendous costs which Americans have never really taken seriously. It’s about time we started talking about it.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 21, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The reason money is so powerful in American politics is not because we don’t regulate it properly. It’s because of big government..

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