Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton on the role of money in politics

Last night provided a clear contrast between the two Democratic front-runners when it comes to the pervasive influence of money in politics. Bernie Sanders has staked his campaign (if not his entire career) on the assumption that money is the single most corrupting influence in the American political system and that many (if not most) of the woes of the working class are due to the influence of large, wealthy donors and special interests group in the political system. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is more measured in her critique of the role of money in politics and seems more willing to work in a mutually tolerant relationship with Wall Street than strictly against Wall Street.

Coming from a political science perspective, most of the research tends to indicate that money certainly matters in politics, but not nearly as much as people often assume. Bernie Sanders (and many/most Americans) assume a model that goes like this: Interest Group A gives to Politician B and so Politician B in turn supports policies favorable to Interest Group A. In contrast, much empirical evidence seems to indicate that the arrow often goes the other way: Politician B is already ideologically predisposed to support issues favorable to Interest Group A and so Interest Group A donates to Politician B to help that person get elected or reelected so that Politician B can continue to support those issues (which Politician B would likely do anyways even in the absence of the donations from Interest Group A). (For more information and detail on this argument, I highly recommend listening to the first segment of a recent podcast by Vox’s The Weeds: http://www.vox.com/2016/1/22/10815228/weeds-campaign-finance.)

I emphasize that political scientists do not argue that money makes no difference in politics, but rather it matters a lot less than is often popularly perceived to be the case.

For the political science academic community, the cause of polarization and governmental dysfunction is due less to the influence of money and special interests and more to the driving effect of political polarization and party sorting in contemporary American politics. In short, this perspective argues that government is paralyzed because the voters that elect that government are paralyzed themselves between starkly contrasting views about the appropriate role of government, religion, and morality in American society. Two very different groups of voters go to the polls every election and elect politicians who support two very different pictures of what politics should be. No wonder they can’t agree on anything. (More on this here: http://www.vox.com/cards/congressional-dysfunction/what-is-political-polarization.)

My heart sympathizes strongly with Democrats who support Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution in the United States. I understand the appeal and where they are coming from. Ultimately, though, there is less evidence to support Sanders’ diagnosis of the problems with the political system. Because he fundamentally misunderstands the causes of the problems (or at the very least discounts the strong effect of other clear causes), it makes me skeptical as to how effective he would be in fostering solutions for the problems.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, seems to me to have a clearer understanding of the strong role that identity and ideology play in driving political behavior in both the American public and elected government. Thus, I believe that she would ultimately be more effective in achieving her goals if elected president than Bernie Sanders would be. True, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a win for the status quo and the “establishment,” and again, my heart sympathizes with the sentiment among Sanders supporters who desire the revolution. But a century of voting behavior and a strong scholarly consensus gives us very, very little reasons to expect that the revolution is coming in the near future. The House of Representatives will almost certainly be controlled by Republicans in 2017, making it necessary for a Democratic president to have to cut deals and bargain with a Republican congress just as President Obama has had to do the last several years.

Hillary Clinton would probably get Democrats some of what they want. Bernie Sanders would likely get them close to nothing.

 

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