March 12, 2012  ·  Lessig

Anonymous at the Economist (because everyone at the Economist is anonymous) has weighed into the debate between Ezra and me with an important question, and an incomplete answer.

They [allow me this grammatical mistake so I don’t have to say “he or she”] rightly read me to argue that there may be a link between gerrymandered districts, polarization and fundraising. 

And then they rightly raise an important question: “Isn’t gerrymandering the really serious problem here?” (Since it is gerrymandering that creates the safe seats which makes it less costly for candidates to appeal to the extremes.) As they go on: 

this logically has nothing to do with money. If we left the definition of congressional districts to an algorithm expressly designed to minimise the “safeness” of seats, the fund-raising advantages of “extreme” positioning would decline, elections would produce more moderate representatives, and partisan polarisation would decline, regardless of the campaign-finance scheme. That suggests “the current system for funding campaigns” isn’t the crucial variable.

And then they end with the critical sentence that I wanted to flag: 

If the need to raise many small donations nevertheless continued to “exacerbate polarization” by exerting pressure to raise funds through relatively purist partisan rhetoric, couldn’t we lift that pressure by raising the cap on donations?

It is true that if my hypothesis is right, ending gerrymandering would increase the cost of polarizing fundraising. That’s not enough to say it would end it. It just would not be as easy. 

But the last sentence quoted above is why I am insistent that the problem with Congress is not just (and not first) the problem of polarization. Because while one might well “lift the pressure” to “raise funds through relatively purist partisan rhetoric” by “raising the cap on donations,” one wouldn’t address the more fundamental problem with the current system: That the tiniest slice of the 1% is funding the elections. 

Two bits of recent data make this point quite clearly, and more dramatically, than I did in my book.

The first is the conjunction of Rick Hasen’s recent piece in Slate, measuring the rise in independent expenditures in this election cycle (“What is the total for this election season through March 8? More than $88 million, a 234 percent increase over 2008 and a 628 percent increase over 2004.”) with the Ari Berman’s piece in the Nation analyzing who those funders are (196 individuals account for 80% of that spending). (And for good measure, see also the Sunlight Foundations great piece, The One Percent of the One Percent.)

The second is some data calculated by a fellow at the EJ Safra Center, Paul Jorgensen. Using zipcode maps and a much cleaner dataset of contributors, Paul is able to calculate the per capita contribution of the top 1% versus the per capita contribution of the 99%. Here’s what it looks like for 1990, 2000, and 2008.

The problem with American democracy remains, in my view, that

  1. Congress is dependent upon its funders AND
  2. “The Funders” are not “The People.” 

If the Economist got its way, problem (2) would only be worse: the funders would be even less “the People.” And I remain convinced that one of the reasons we can’t get to Ezra’s solution to the polarization mess is problem (1): Congress is dependent upon its funders. 

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