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Campaign Finance Reform by Itself Won’t End Elite Control of Politics

Socialists can and should continue to fight to banish corporate money from elections. But Canada is a case study in the limits of campaign finance reform. We need more radical action to limit the power of the rich in politics.

Restricting the power of money to influence politics may be urgent and necessary, but it does little to alter the ideological preferences of those who traditionally staff the halls of power. (Getty Images)

In both his runs for the presidency, Bernie Sanders issued frequent battle cries for campaign finance reform. Absolutely nothing about this strategy was uncalled for and, if anything, Sanders’s loud and unapologetic attack on the power of organized money in American politics was long overdue from a major presidential candidate.

As virtually everyone without a Beltway area code seems to understand, the corrupting influence of wealth — from rich donors, from corporations, from Super PACs — corrodes American democracy and skews public policy toward the interests of the 1 percent. By any standard, in fact, the sheer amount of money in American elections is often difficult to comprehend: one estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics pegged the total cost of the 2020 cycle at some $14 billion. In 2018, less than one half of 1 percent of Americans contributed more than $200 — meaning that America’s disproportionately white, wealthy, and right-leaning donor class contributed well over half of all funding. Permissive, opaque, and tailor-made for the exorbitantly rich, there can be no doubt whatsoever that America’s campaign finance regime is a wild west that diminishes the power of the many for the benefit of a tiny few.

For Democrats in particular, this reality has long served as a useful pretext for why progressive legislation is so difficult to achieve. And, for what it’s worth, the excuse is not without a degree of truth. Want to contest a major election? More than anything else, a candidate needs money — and one who runs afoul of powerful lobbies, well-off individual donors, or corporate interests by supporting socialized medicine or wealth taxes is going to have a much harder time getting it. Even those who do get elected will soon find themselves pitted against the massive apparatus of lobbying, think tanks, and corporate communications that largely runs the show in Washington (though plenty of left-wing lawmakers are currently demonstrating the power of grassroots fundraising and legislative independence from corporate interests).

Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at America’s neighbor to the north underscores the limits of campaign finance reform and the extent to which powerful interests can still assert themselves by other means. At the federal level at least, Canada’s political financing laws are incredibly restrictive by American standards: donations from unions and corporations are banned outright; PACs and Super PACs do not exist; and spending and individual contribution limits are comparatively low and strictly enforced. Thanks to federal campaign rules, the capacity of corporations and other special interests to dominate the airwaves during elections is also severely curtailed. Though the Conservative government axed it, the country even until recently had a per-vote subsidy, which apportioned public funding to political parties based on the number votes they received.

The upshot: between campaign finance laws and the relatively non-obstructionist nature of Canada’s political institutions, the scope for federal governments to legislate major reforms is astonishingly broad. Yet, survey the landscape of the country’s politics since the early 1990s and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many sweeping or transformative reforms — at least in the sense generally invoked by those on the Left. In 1993, Canada’s Liberals promised a National Childcare Program and, throughout the four Liberal majority governments since, one has conspicuously failed to materialize. Notwithstanding the many strengths of the country’s health care system (particularly when measured against its US counterpart), dental, pharmaceutical, and psychiatric needs remain largely uncovered. Having peaked during the 1970s, union density has continued to decline. Large corporations successfully avoid billions in taxes and the overall rate paid by major banks is the lowest in the G7.

None of these trends can be solely blamed on the period of Conservative rule between 2006 and 2015. Of the twenty-eight years spanning the beginning of Jean Chrétien’s majority in 1993 to the present day, nineteen of them have seen Liberal governance. Much like the Democratic Party, Canada’s Liberals have long been adept at making progressive noises around election time while governing from the neoliberal center. Though political financing scandals are by no means unheard of, the direct link between political parties and special interests that is so familiar to Americans does not really feature in Canada’s political landscape.

Given all of this, it’s worth asking why Canada has not become the social democratic utopia it is sometimes wrongly assumed to be. There are plenty of boring ways to answer the question, none of which are entirely untrue. Corporate lobbying, of course, still exists. The majority of Canada’s editorial boards have a right-wing bent. Think tanks like the Fraser Institute have been astonishingly successful at inserting their agitprop into the mainstream media. The better explanation, however, is probably even more straightforward. If we consider everything Canada’s Liberals have promised to do over the past thirty years, either explicitly or vaguely, we are inevitably left with nagging questions as to why the country continues to look the way it does — all of which are easily transferable to the American context, despite its many differences.

The answer, by way of Occam’s Razor, is that liberals tend to govern from the neoliberal center not because they’re forced to but because they want to. Restricting the power of money to influence politics may be urgent and necessary, but it does little to alter the ideological preferences of those who traditionally staff the halls of power. Which is all to say: the Left cannot hope that fairer rules alone will facilitate its agenda or that liberal capitalism instantly becomes an easier environment in which to make gains once the nexus binding lawmakers and wealthy donors has been severed. Campaign finance reform remains a vital goal, but it is no panacea — and Canada is proof.