Transparency is a bipartisan issue. There is no special interest to campaign against transparency. There is no NGO designed to counteract Transparency International. This all makes a recent article in Foreign Affairs by James D’Angelo and Brent Ranalli so striking. It catches the reader off guard because it makes the case against broad transparency. There argument is both original and provocative.
My participation in third party politics has allowed me to recognize the nuance within the debate on campaign finance reform. American politics suffers from a combination of entry and exit barriers. A series of structural entry barriers exist from ballot access to first past the post elections limit the American political system to two parties. But these structural barriers are reinforced by cultural barriers such as party identification, media attention and fundraising. Third parties face so many obstacles that they become inevitabilities. Outsider candidates within the major parties face many of the same obstacles. However, the establishment begins to embrace these candidates as they demonstrate the mettle necessary to overcome these obstacles. Politicians like AOC and Donald Trump began as outsiders but have become central figures as they demonstrated their ability to win. This is not a recent phenomenon. Ronald Reagan faced these same hurdles as a Republican outsider in the 1970s.
Outsiders face a credibility gap. Incumbents have established their capacity to win election. They have done it before. The credibility gap serves as a threshold to raise greater funds, receive more votes and recruit more volunteers. But this brings about a paradox of sorts. The resources necessary to overcome the credibility gap are achieved once this gap is overcome. Challengers must piece together the resources necessary to convince donors, voters and volunteers their contributions will not be wasted. Obviously, this threshold is subjective. Third party candidates do win some votes. Long-shot candidates will raise money and recruit volunteers. But these resources increase exponentially as they approach a critical threshold.
Large donors can help close the credibility gap. Mega-donors like Charles and David Koch or George Soros have established reputations for their sizable political contributions. Yet their influence has the greatest impact on challenger candidates because their funds close the credibility gap. Incumbents have many advantages from their last campaign. Voter recognition goes a long way, but the experience of a successful campaign is priceless. Incumbents who have developed an infrastructure of volunteers, donors and supporters have an advantage beyond raw money. In fact, money is one of the few resources possible to level the incumbency advantage. Efforts made to equalize campaign financing accentuate incumbency advantages a challenger cannot easily replicate.
This does not mean money cannot corrupt politics. Libertarians who argued against campaign finance laws embraced transparency laws. It seems natural to ask politicians to account for their financial backers. D’Angelo and Ranalli take this to another level by asking politicians to conduct their business in private. They note how public votes have given special interests and lobbyists information to influence politicians and public policy. Their paper is one of many attempts to roll back reforms to a golden age of political compromise.
But their argument is built on a false premise. It is no longer possible to disguise information. The twenty-first century has redefined the value of information through greater tools and techniques for analysis. Ancient history gives accounts of military commanders who won battles against insurmountable odds. The historical accounts of Julius Caesar are unreal. But few leaders were selected by merit. This made it remarkable when a man of merit rose to prominence. Today these advantages have been leveled through professionalization and information. Data has revolutionized nearly every industry from sports to campaigns and every type of business. It is implausible any veil over congressional behavior would remain in the dark. The important information would disseminate back to special interests. Information is the new currency.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com