If Keyser Söze Ruled America, Would We Know?

In this post on Mischiefs of Faction, Seth Masket discusses the recent debate about whether (super-)rich are overly influential in American politics.  I’ve already said a bit about the recent Gilens and Page piece that provides evidence that rich interests might have more pull than those of the average American.  In a nutshell, I don’t believe that the (nonetheless impressive) evidence presented by Gilens and Page demonstrates that the rich are actually driving, as opposed to responding to, politics.[1]

Seth’s post echoes my skepticism in some respects.  First, the rich and “super rich” donors are less polarized than are “small” donors.  Second, and perhaps even more importantly, admittedly casual inspection of REALLY large donors suggests that they are backing losing causes.  As Seth writes,

…the very wealthy aren’t necessarily getting what they’re paying for. Note that Sheldon Adelson appears in the above graph. He’s pretty conservative, according to these figures, and he memorably spent about $20 million in 2012 to buy Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nomination, which kind of didn’t happen […] he definitely didn’t get what he paid for. (Okay, yeah, he sent a signal that he’s a rich guy who will spend money on politics, but people knew that already.)

While most donations aren’t quite at this level, they nonetheless follow a similar path, with a lot of them not really buying anything at all. To some extent, the money gives them access to politicians, which isn’t nothing.“[2]

The Adelson point raises another problem we need to confront when looking for the influence of money in American politics.  Since the 1970s, most federal campaign contribution data has been public.  Furthermore, even the ways in which one can spend money that are less transparent (e.g., independent expenditures) can be credibly revealed to the public if the donor(s) want to do so.

Thus, a rich donor with strong, public opinions could achieve influence on candidates—even or especially those he or she does not contribute to—by donating a bunch of money to long-shot, extreme/fringe candidates.  This is a costly signal of how much the donor cares about the issue(s) he or she is raising, and might lead to other candidates “etch-a-sketching” their positions closer to the goals of the donor.  Indeed, these candidates need not expect to ever receive a dime from the donor in question: they might just want to “turn off the spigot” and move on with the other dimensions of the campaign.

Furthermore, such candidates might actually prefer to not receive donations/explicit support from these donors.  After all, a candidate might not want to be either associated with the donor from a personal or policy stance (do you think anyone is courting Donald Sterling for endorsements right now?) or, even more ironically, the candidate might worry about being seen as “in the donor’s pocket.” Finally, there are a lot of rich donors, and they don’t espouse identical views on every topic.  As Seth notes,

“politicians are wary of boldly adopting a wealthy donor’s views, and … they hear from a lot of wealthy donors across the political spectrum, who probably have conflicting ideas”

Overall, tracing political influence through known-to-be-observable actions such as donations, press releases, and endorsements is perilous.  A truly influential individual sometimes wants to minimize the public’s awareness of his or her influence, particularly when that influence is being exercised through others.  It is useful to always remember Kevin Spacey’s line from The Usual Suspects:

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”[3][4]

From an empirical standpoint, I think the current debate about influence in American politics is interesting: for example, it is motivating people to think about both what data can be collected and innovative ways to manipulate and visualize it.  But I caution against the temptation to jump from it to wholesale normative judgments about the state of American politics.  Specifically, there’s another Kevin Spacey line in The Usual Suspects that is useful to remember as politicos and pundits debate who truly “controls” American politics:

To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.




[1] This is what is known as an “endogeneity problem.”  While some people roll their eyes at such claims, I provided a theory (and could provide more than couple of additional ones) that support the claim that such a problem might exist.  Hence, I humbly assert that the burden of proving that this is not a problem rests on those who claim that the evidence is indeed “causal” in nature.

[2] As a side note, I’ve also argued that donors should be expected to have more access to politicians than non-donors, and that this need not represent a failing of our (or any) democratic system.

[3] Verifying my memory of this quote, I found out that it is a restatement of a line by Baudelaire: “La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas.I have no idea what this has to do with anything, but I feel marginally more erudite after copy-and-pasting French into my post.

[4] I will simply note in passing the link between this and the entirety of the first two seasons of the US version of House of Cards.