David Brooks on the McCutcheon decision

by on April 4, 2014 at 7:50 am in Current Affairs, Law, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The Supreme Court just voted to eliminate aggregate contribution limits, here is David’s response:

The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.

There is more here.  Ray LaRaja makes related points here.

1 leftistconservative April 4, 2014 at 7:54 am

and now everything is Good and Right and Proper in this Wonderful Land of Ours.


Down with the Supreme Court and its coven of unelected imperial elites who never had a real job in their lives.

2 dan1111 April 4, 2014 at 8:07 am

What sort of employment history would you like the nation’s top judges to have?

3 leftistconservative April 4, 2014 at 10:33 am

blue collar, straight up.

4 Ray Lopez April 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

@leftistconservative– that would mean the Supremes would have girly calendars on their walls, back slap each other, and vote not by the merits of the case but by the buddy alliances they have formed. Wait–that’s how the Supremes decide cases today?! Except for the girly calendars, or maybe not even for that.

5 ww April 5, 2014 at 11:27 am

Desk drawers for a calendar peeky-boo.

6 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm

I think the problem is less their employment history than their incorporation into a BosWash professional-managerial subculture which is severely inbred and apprehends very little which does not partake of its postulates (Robert Bork’s assessment of John Paul Stevens is salient here). The self-understanding of the professional class vis a vis the rest of us is very defective and that class no longer has what you might call a ‘democratic culture’. The institutional defects of our system – lift tenure for federal judges – exacerbate matters. Any restoration of community control and democratic discretion is going to have to be accompanied by measures which strip the judiciary of its special immunities and strip the legal profession of important aspects of its role in society.

7 Locke April 4, 2014 at 6:42 pm

There are several problems to be addressed with the actual political system (which does not include the independent judicial system) before our entire judicial branch is placed on its head. The problem isn’t with the judicial branch, it starts much further upstream. The court system just gets flooded with the refuse.

8 andrew' April 4, 2014 at 7:57 am

I wish I was david brooks. Not professionally, I’d quit all that stuff and lay on a beach.

9 mofo. April 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

“Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks.[CITATION NEEDED] They foster coalition thinking. [CITATION NEEDED]They are relatively transparent.[CITATION NEEDED] They are accountable to voters. [CITATION NEEDED][DUBIOUS – DISCUSS]They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one.[CITATION NEEDED] Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate.[CITATION NEEDED] Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. [CITATION NEEDED]Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process[CITATION NEEDED]”

10 Explodicle April 4, 2014 at 9:02 am

I nearly spat out my coffee when I read that last part about welcoming people into the political process.

“Oh, so you have a minority political opinion? Welcome to our party! Just keep voting for us and we’ll totally take your views into consideration. I mean, we can’t stand up for X or abolish Y this election, we’re more concerned with Z. But just keep on voting for us, we promise we’ll address your concerns once we have an election with fewer immediate urgent problems. What you want is important. Next election, or the one after that for sure.”

11 mofo. April 4, 2014 at 9:27 am

Dont worry, they are accountable to voters. I mean, not on this side of the looking glass, but in Brooksland anyway.

12 Ray Lopez April 4, 2014 at 10:47 am

@mofo–you need to become an unpaid Wikipedia librarian, it’s so you.

13 mofo. April 4, 2014 at 11:00 am

I am. Different user name though.

14 JWatts April 4, 2014 at 3:49 pm

David Brooks column: [CITATION NEEDED]

15 Z April 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

He’s correct that the two political parties will benefit. How much is debatable. The alleged benefits are not. In a social democracy, the mainstream political parties are just the faces of the ruling elite. Giving them a hammerlock on the levers of power is good for toadies like the folks at the NYTimes, but it is not good for the country.

16 T. Shaw April 4, 2014 at 9:03 am


Congress’ approval rating is below 10%, Obama is about 40%. A large majority of polled Americans see that the country is moving in the wrong direction.

About 40% (inclduing me) are independents. The rump politicians/whores control about 30% each party of voters.

Dems don’t need the money. Are government-funded or backed (a hundred thousand community organizations – ACORN everywhere), FNM, FRE, eta al still giving the dems tens of millions? And, dems have 24/7 propaganda support from the so-called media (except FOX): actually democrat operatives with by-lines.

You get what you pay for: an emperor with no clothes and a parliament of whores. And, a supreme court that decides based on emotions not the Constitution. We’d be better off if they were all devoured by sasquatches.

17 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 4:21 pm

That’s where we are, ’tis true. It’s sort of like Uruguay or Chile, ca. 1972.

18 Dan Cole April 4, 2014 at 9:01 am

Even assuming Willison and Gora are correct, we are now in a situation with no limits on giving to parties and no limits on giving to PACs. Combine that with partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts, and we get a self-fulfilling prophecy of public choice theory (on steroids).

19 Ray Lopez April 4, 2014 at 10:51 am

@Dan Cole–and NYC growth rates were some of the greatest ever recorded when City Hall was ruled by Society of St. Tammany. That is because government back then (19th century) was around 10% of GDP, not 45% as today. What we need is less government, not better/ “more fair” / “more transparent” government. Better government only encourages rent seekers and makes DC even more powerful. Good for DC landlords like me but bad for everybody outside the Beltway.

20 F. Lynx Pardinus April 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm

That reminds me of Walter Lippmann:

We forget completely the important wants supplied by Tammany Hall. We forget that this is a lonely country for an immigrant and that the Statue of Liberty doesn’t shed her light with too much warmth. Possessing nothing but a statistical, inhuman conception of government, the average municipal reformer looks down contemptuously upon a man like Tim Sullivan with his clambakes and his dances; his warm and friendly saloons, his handshaking and funeral-going and baby-christening; his readiness to get coal for the family, and a job for the husband. But a Tim Sullivan is closer to the heart of statesmanship than five City Clubs full of people who want low taxes and orderly bookkeeping. He does things which have to be done. He humanizes a strange country; he is a friend at court; he represents the legitimate kindliness of government, standing between the poor and the impersonal, uninviting majesty of the law.

21 So Much for Subtlety April 4, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Ahh, innocent times:

“I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you; and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend of me.

But,uh, now you come to me and you say — “Don Corleone give me justice.” — But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you, uh, ask me to do murder, for money. “

Those cold and impersonal systems are what we call justice.

22 mavery April 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

I think what we need is more nostalgia for the 1800s.

23 F. Lynx Pardinus April 4, 2014 at 9:01 am

“These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. ”

If we believe in things like federalism, subsidiarity, and all that, why would we think this was a bad thing?

24 The Anti-Gnostic April 4, 2014 at 9:27 am

Brooks talks about political parties like they are fostering this intellectual ferment, instead of two careerist groups that have rigged the game so voting never threatens the government.

Also, I’ve always found it odd that taxpayers have to pay the tab for primary elections. Or that primary elections are open to voters in general.

25 Mondfledermaus April 4, 2014 at 10:48 am

Yes it’s an odd quick of the American system. Pretty much elsewhere, if you want to be involved in the candidate selection process (or become a candidate yourself), you have to become a party member, which usually involves the acceptance of the party principles and the payment of dues. The party can kick you out if they feel you are detrimental to the cause.

Here parties have to deal with all kinds of wackos, because all they have to do is check a box when registering to vote at the DMV while renewing your drivers license.

26 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 11:51 am

Political parties are much more uniform as regards their mix of dispositions and policy preferences than was the case fifty years ago. There’s careerism, but their also is principle as well.

27 Locke April 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm

The role of political parties that Brooks describes would be beneficial if there were more than just two parties.

28 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Try ordinal balloting, and the concern about ‘wasted votes’ evaporates. The thing is, I suspect the factors which influence partisan allegiance are so strongly correlated that you would in this country default to a near duopoly. The U.S. is not Israel, where you have Arab v. Jew, non-Zionist v. Zionist, secular v. religious, labor v. commerce v. professions, subfractions of labor and commerce, and most combinations of these diptychs and triptychs with a critical mass making for representation and you have five or six grand blocs of parties representing rough preference affinities.

29 Locke April 4, 2014 at 6:10 pm

That’s the core question, right? What holds the duopoly together. My leading theory is that it’s the binary bound range of plurality voting systems that causes strong bimodal coalescence in the face of a zero-sum tally. For sure any change to the voting system would still be initially subject to ‘sticky alignment’ to the two major parties, but with each party are plenty of idealogical and regional fault lines to cause massive fracturing of partisan identities and realignment around a new multimodal alignment distribution. I don’t even think it would take that much time for the cracks to appear in the face of something like Approval Qualification Primaries (approval voting, qualification to general election). I think that goes down in one of two ways, depending on how the primary is structured.

1) Non-partisan variant, or the Olympic Team model: Party affiliation isn’t recognized by the Primary system and so you may end up with 4 self-identified Republicans and 4 self-identified Democrats (in addition to independents and third party candidates), but pretty soon the pressure to self-differentiate would become pretty strong. Parties might decide to regulate the who bears the party affiliation, but doing so will only promote splintering.

2) Partisan variant: where parties may only nominate one candidate to the Primary. This would give parties the ability to better control their brand, but would leave wide open the opportunity for splintering into third parties. Without the tyranny of plurality voting, there would no incentive to play by party rules.

So in either case, I think it wouldn’t be long until you started to see the separation of Fiscal-Republicans, Christian-Republicans, Labor-Democrats, Social-Democrats, Liberal-Democrats, and every permutation thereof. More interestingly would be special interest parties and single issues parties. And of course straight up Independents.

30 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 7:28 pm

What holds the duopoly together. My leading theory is that it’s the binary bound range of plurality voting systems that causes strong bimodal coalescence in the face of a zero-sum tally.

C’mon, you have multiparty systems with first-past-the-post. Look at Canada today, Wilhelmine Germany, even Britain. The electoral system does truncate the representation of minor parties to a disagreeable degree, but changing it is not going to give us a French party spectrum. You’ll get a scatter of Libertarians and ethnic particularists in Congress to keep Bernie Sanders company.

31 Locke April 5, 2014 at 12:28 am

@Art Deco

I don’t mean to imply that it is the sole source of the two party system, just the largest of the contributing factors. Canada and the UK are interesting in that exist somewhere in between America’s two party system and the multi-party spectrums observed on the continent, but they are hardly true multiparty systems. I would argue that the UK is in a 3-party intermediate state similar to the transition away from the Whig Party in the US or the brief emergence of TR’s short lived Progressive Party. The Lib-Dems best chance for lasting change is electoral reform, which they’ve been very vocal about pursuing. I would have very little hope for any US third party that isn’t similarly looking to use such a short window to change the rules of the electoral game.

We’re having the same conversation across several threads, so I’ll speak to the political diversification aspect in the appropriate comment.

32 Denis Drew April 4, 2014 at 10:23 am

First Amendment proof defense against Kochs and friends buying all the next elections: matching funds for every candidate or incumbent for every dollar contributed by anybody. Only mechanical answer possible.

Just like legally mandated, centralized bargaining (where everyone doing the same kind of work in the same locale negotiates a single contract with every employer) is the only answer possible to the race-to-the-economic and political-bottom.

Instituting the latter may be necessary before we can institute the former.

Matching funds would facilitate incumbents working for us 100% of the time — instead of raising money 50% of the time and “earning” it the other 50%.

Nothing could be easier than selling centralized bargaining (in place over a century in labor markets around the world — including the worlds most respected economy; think VW). As I have been spamming for years, supermarket workers and airline employees (think the regionals) would kill for centralized bargaining (lots of others too — try asking).

Nothing could be more exciting. Why do the Repubs have half the Congress? Because the Dems never venture out with something everybody would die for (or kill for).

33 mofo. April 4, 2014 at 11:09 am

Seems like you are only imagining this in one direction.

Pretend for a moment there is a candidate in your district who’s campaign position is “I will crush all existing Unions and make any kind of collective bargaining illegal”. Assuming this is something you dont want to happen, what do you do to stop it? If you give money to his opponent, you are actually helping the candidate you hate, as he will also receive an equal amount of money (tax payer money, to boot).

Your proposal insures that the more popular a candidate is, the more well funded his opponent is, which seems to be the opposite of what anyone would want.

34 tt31 April 4, 2014 at 10:27 am

There’s an unstated assumption in these pieces that what the parties are will be relatively unaffected by the decision. I’m not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion on whether that’s right, but thought it was worth making more explicit.

35 Nate April 4, 2014 at 10:39 am

“Strengthened parties will make races more competitive”

Maybe between our duopolistic leviathans, but anything outside of Team Blue/Team Red and their “broad’ (LOL) political/philosophical frameworks will remain uncompetitive.

36 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 11:49 am

Why not scrap campaign finance regulation bar certain procedural provisions, e.g. requiring campaign committees to be registered corporations; requiring corporations making contributions be registered entities financed by voluntary contributions and not bank loans, assessments on constituents (e.g. employees or union members), or the capital markets; and requiring donations of a value exceeding a certain share of nominal domestic product per capita be disclosed? You could add a couple of addenda: prohibiting campaign committee from accepting donations from foreign citizens and prohibiting the use of straw donors (which, in such a regime, would only be of use for concealing donations from foreigners, ordinary corporations, and tainted individuals).

37 Locke April 5, 2014 at 12:16 am

These are all interesting ideas. Definitely adding them to my list of Ideas To Consider That Don’t Require Supplanting The First Amendment.

38 Randy B April 4, 2014 at 11:51 am

David Brooks is just, once again, carrying water for the political establishment. Why is this worth reposting?

39 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 12:35 pm

IIRC, academic political scientists tend to be fond of political parties because they are interest aggregators. Students of political science tend to be fond of omnibus regulatory agencies as well, because agencies with a more particular book are more vulnerable to capture.

40 R Richard Schweitzer April 4, 2014 at 12:07 pm

In his enthusiasm for political parties, I would suggest that David Brooks reread “The Logic of Collective Action” by Mancur Olson, Jr. (Harvard University Press, 1965).

41 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Olson’s interest was in the process of under-the-table cartel formation. I do not think the internal operations of omnibus political parties were on his mind with that.

42 Charlie April 4, 2014 at 12:40 pm

You are incorrect.

43 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 7:25 pm

The Rise and Decline of Nations was most certainly about cartel formation. As for the Logic of Collective Action, it has not a single chapter heading or index reference to political parties.

44 David C April 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Maybe we can finally move towards real campaign finance reform.


45 Edgar April 4, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Oh boy, refinements to the campaign finance system! That’s like celebrating a new E85 model of the Chevy Corvair. Wake me when you want to talk about a constitutional convention to a adopt a parliamentary, proportional representation system. I don’t care what the poli-sci types say, winner-take all barely qualifies, if at all, as a democracy in this day and age.

46 Locke April 4, 2014 at 3:53 pm

The problem is with the voting system, not the entire structure of government. Our separation of executive and legislative branches is fine, and avoids the disadvantages of a parliamentary system, but our problem is a voting system (plurality voting) that predetermines binary outcomes in the form of a two party system.

47 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 7:22 pm

No, it tends to. You have an interaction between voting systems and the sociological factors. Canada and Britain have first-past-the-post and have never had strict duopoly. France retains a fragmented party system with first-past-the-post w/run-offs.

What does not map well to our party system would be political threads which are communitarian, libertarian, black nationalist, or palaeo. Libertarian and palaeo dispensations might amount to 8% of the electorate, give or take, but a plurality very few places. The communitarian understanding is very poorly articulated. There are no policy shops or publications which promote it. The closest you come is the U.S. Catholic Conference, and the closest thing to a working politician who does so might be Mike Huckabee or Christopher Smith or William Lipinski. It’s an inchoate set of popular sentiments and that is all.

48 Locke April 5, 2014 at 11:03 am

In a multi-modal partisan field (where the two large parties do not exist as cohesive entities), 8% is quite a lot. The facts on these other idealogical threads as you present them can only be regarded in the current context though. If the context changes, the facts change. Partisan diversification could take many forms, and along multiple dimensions: national vs regional, platform vs single issue, idealogical vs methodological, etc.

If we use libertarianism as an example, and set aside the absurdity that is the LP, it isn’t so much a single coherent ideology that would likely manifest itself as its own partisan identity so much as it is a philosophical preference with a presence all along the ideological spectrum. So I think it would be more likely to manifest as the adjective in a hand full of hyphenated party names: the libertarian-conservatives (TP), the libertarian-liberals (TC?), the libertarian-socialists (Chomsky, etc), etc.

The whole point of bringing about a multi-modal partisan field is to allow all of these long suppressed minority threads to get some air and be marketed independently of the Two Party Machine. The whole point is to expand idealogical diversity.

49 anon April 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I sometimes think Tyler just posts mediocre excerpts of David Brooks columns so his readers can mock them. Very Straussian of you, Tyler.

50 JWatts April 4, 2014 at 3:53 pm

“Tyler just posts mediocre excerpts of David Brooks columns”

As opposed to brilliant excerpts of David Brooks columns?

51 Locke April 4, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Here’s a better proposal:

* Abandon the concept of limits
* Switch to taxation of campaign donations
* First $2000ish is tax deductible, as it is now
* Every dollar after that is taxed on an increasingly progressive scale
* After $10k it’s 10%
* After $100k it’s 50%, and so on
* The revenue generated from this donation tax is channeled into a trust for public campaign financing

But the problem with our political system isn’t so much about the money as it is the voting system which guarantees binary outcomes, and hence the limited devision space that a two party system allows. So campaign finance reform is meaningless as long as we have an electoral system that entrenches a two party outcome. Plurality voting mathematically predetermines these binary outcomes, so the first trick is to replace plurality voting.

My idea:
* Supplant publicly funded partisan primaries with Public Open Approval Primaries, meaning…
* A single open public primary, but scrap “top 2”
* Approval voting based ballot: voters check all the candidates they approve of
* The candidates with the top, say, 5 (or any number greater than 2) approval ratings go on to the general election
* Candidates going on to general election are also awarded public financing, via mechanism described above.

General election is determined by Instant Runoff Voting

52 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Ordinal balloting, which was used in the Minneapolis mayor’s race this year, has been used in Australia for some time and Ireland for some time. There are two tabulation methods: the alternate vote when the competitors are seeking a single office and ‘single-transferrable vote’ when you have a multi-candidate constituency for slots on a conciliar body. You need no second round.

53 Locke April 4, 2014 at 5:27 pm

You need a second round if you’re using the primary as a qualification for public campaign financing. You’re not just going to hand out money to anyone who wants to run. That wouldn’t be sustainable. I think there -is- value in having separate primary and general elections as well in order to increase exposure to candidates and facilitate refinement of some core themes of debate among the multiple perspectives. The extra cost of a second round of voting is worth that (and increased electronic voting can further reduce costs). I agree for local elections though a single round is sufficient.

But you know what, better yet: let’s experiment with several algorithms. We’ve got 50 states, that’s capacity for a lot of experimentation.

54 Art Deco April 4, 2014 at 7:12 pm

IIRC, Italy abolished public financing in 1993.

You can sort constituencies into ‘competitive’ and ‘non-competitive’ according to their electoral history and have a petition process in the latter where all aspirants circulate among their preferred body of registrants. You’d have several Democrats and perhaps a token Republican. You just used dues-paying member caucuses for the party nomination process and have primaries among registrants only among those who attain a support threshhold.

I tend to doubt you can craft a public financing system that’s fair.

55 Nathan W April 4, 2014 at 3:55 pm

I think it would be far, far better to go the the Canadian model, where the corrosive influence of money in politics is limited due to companies and unions not being able to give money and where other organizations cannot so explicitly get involved campaigns by advertising during election times.

The fact that parties are in a better position to funnel money to advertise about political issues which are more national in nature does not make me feel more comfortable that getting rid of contribution limits will improve the quality of representation or policy outputs coming from American-style democratic process.

56 Locke April 4, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Along with Canada’s lax restrictions on government regulation of speech? No thanks.

Stop pitting campaign finance reform against first amendment protections with these command and control policies. Taxation of campaign donations is much saner route of action, couple with public campaign financing.

57 derek April 4, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Money in politics is bad- just look at the Super PACs. Taking money away from Super PACs? No, that would be silly. Let’s try to just give more money to the parties themselves.

Brooks’ position is a joke of a #slatetake.

58 chuck martel April 4, 2014 at 9:29 pm

“Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks.”

Why would anyone want that? The guy you vote for should, if elected, reflect the interests of the constituency he represents. There’s a reason Mrs. Bill Clinton, a pol without a home, ran for a New York senate seat rather than one in Texas. Parties kind of mess up the whole anarchist idea, too.

59 Duracomm April 5, 2014 at 11:49 am

1. If campaign finance “reform” advocates want money out of politics they should work to get politics out of money.

2. The campaign finance “reform” advocates outrage over citizens exercising their free speech rights and their single minded focus on limiting free speech rights is pathetically mis-focused given the really ugly stuff that happens in law making.

Max Baucus rewards ex-staffers with tax breaks for their clients

Tax breaks for Hollywood, NASCAR, windmills, algae and multinational corporations ended up in the “fiscal cliff” bill … they were spawned by a web of lobbyists, donors and staffers surrounding Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

Pick any one of the special-interest tax breaks extended by the cliff deal, and you’re likely to find a former Baucus aide who lobbied for it on behalf of a large corporation or industry organization.

General Electric may have been the biggest winner from the cliff deal.

… an arcane-sounding provision that became Section 222 of Baucus’ bill and then Section 322 of the cliff bill: “Extension of subpart F exception for active financing income.” …this provision allows multinationals to move profits to offshore financial subsidiaries and thus avoid paying U.S. corporate income taxes.

This is a windfall for GE: The exception played a central role in GE paying $0 in U.S. corporate income tax in 2011 when it made $5.1 billion in U.S. profits.

Baucus’ chief counsels, legislative directors and chiefs of staff litter K Street. They make sure their clients get their tax carveouts, and they make sure their former boss gets his campaign contributions.”

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