Why Bernie Sanders is wrong about money in politics

Jesse Crosson and James Strickland

Thus far in the 2016 election cycle, candidates and pundits alike have made strong claims about the influence of money in politics.

Bernie Sanders has quipped, “many people have the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street ... the real truth is that Wall Street regulates the Congress.” In his own way, Donald Trump has expressed a similar sentiment: “The fact is that whether it’s Jeb or Hillary or any of them, they’re all controlled by these people and the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists, and the donors.”

The prevailing “conventional wisdom” has held that the votes of our representatives (or at least their time and attention) are bought and sold by the richest Americans.

Yet, for all of the hand-wringing about money in politics today, rigorous analysis (especially in the American Political Science Review and Lobbying and Policy Change) has failed to vindicate this conventional wisdom. Two regular findings throughout that the past 30 years of research call the conventional wisdom into question.

First, when moneyed interests lobby or contribute campaign funds to politicians, they focus their efforts almost entirely on their strongest allies. At first blush, this observation should make obvious sense: of course the National Rifle Association donates money to rural Republicans instead of urban Democrats, for example. But from the perspective of the “conventional wisdom,” these donation patterns make little sense at all.

If our politicians are “bought and sold” in the way the pundits might lead us to believe, why are they wasting their money on candidates with whom they already agree? Why are they not instead focusing their efforts on politicians who are on the fence about (or even marginally opposed to) the moneyed interests’ agenda? According to conventional wisdom, moneyed interests are at best inefficient investors and at worst, foolish.

Second, most donations from moneyed interests, particularly to members of Congress, tend to be surprisingly small. Interest groups donated an average of just $274 per member of Congress in 2014. Given the extreme demand for the time and attention of our legislators, this price seems rather low if we are to believe the conventional wisdom about money in politics. After all, our legislators allocate more than $1 trillion of discretionary spending each year. Shouldn’t demand for the time of such powerful actors drive the price of access much higher?

These two basic observations by no means establish that money in politics doesn’t matter — of course it does.

But they do cast serious doubt on the needlessly cynical conventional wisdom that our elected officials are bought and sold like stock in a corporation. Little serious research today finds evidence to that effect, and it seems far more plausible that money does more to create gridlock and policy stasis than to buy policy change. Even in the cases where money does influence policy change, it likely does so when moneyed interests join together with already sympathetic policymakers to advance a shared agenda.

America faces yet another important election in a few short months, the results of which will determine a great deal about what immigration, economic and foreign policy will look like for the foreseeable future. Undoubtedly, money will play a role in the campaign process.

However, rather than bemoaning the supposed effects of this money on elected leaders, Americans should instead inform themselves about the candidates and issues.

Jesse Crosson and James Strickland are doctoral students in political science at the University of Michigan.