Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and
Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy

The title alone will raise eyebrows, and the total of Jonathan Rauch’s new short book published by the Brookings Institution (available for free Kindle download at Amazon) is likely to infuriate some political reformers. Rauch weaves together the threads of a developing school of thought in academia and politics—which he calls political realism—that recognizes the folly of certain political “reforms,” including campaign finance laws. As a free speech and campaign finance attorney who often puts scare quotes around the word “reform,” obviously I welcome his assessment. At the very least, Rauch’s piece indicates there may be a renaissance of nuance brewing within the campaign finance debate.

Rauch neutralizes terms that most consider unsavory, many of them listed in the book’s title. This includes political “machines,” often attributed pejoratively to groups such as Tammany Hall. Rauch is not a full-fledged apologist, but recognizes that throughout American history political machines and parties have organically risen and fallen. As the product of free association and popular support, they cannot be universally condemned. Whether their respective ends and means were principled is open for discussion, but there is no question that machines aimed to get things done and lived and died based on their ability to do that. Today, in part thanks to campaign finance laws, machines are harder to build and cannot properly function. By extension, Rauch argues, government cannot properly function.

The entire basis for campaign finance laws—and the only reason most of them are allowed to stand today, per the U.S. Supreme Court—is to combat political corruption. Rauch makes a convincing case that the definition of corruption is overbroad, and encompasses far too much of what was traditionally understood as the politics that is central to a functioning government. Even “transactional politics,” in which support and votes are acquired through favors and logrolling is far short of bribery. This is anathema to campaign finance reform. Rauch’s critique here marks some of the books most humorous moments:

As progressives, ever disgusted with politics, search for new dragons to slay, one struggles to understand what sort of real-world political system is not corrupt. Here, then, is a classic case of overshoot: what began as a useful correction of Tammany-­style excess has become a neurotic obsession.

Rauch is no less forgiving to what he terms the “populist” and “libertarian” schools of reform. Populist efforts to maximize political participation by everyday Americans have not worked particularly well and so blindingly embrace democracy as to forget we are a republic. Libertarianism suffers from being, well, libertarian, in that any form of government must, to an extent, govern. I am fairly libertarian, and believe Rauch’s critique here deserves a response at length, but whatever the term it is worthy of critique when it joins progressives in broadening corruption to a synonym for politics.

The all-encompassing definition of “coordination,” a campaign finance term of art and allegedly a tool of corruption, is also taken to task:

To organize coalitions and deals, political machines need to talk to and organize their networks and supporters. But that imperative runs afoul of the weirdest and most perverse of modern progressive obsessions: the attempt to restrict “coordination” of campaign efforts between political parties and either their own candidates or their outside supporters.

This is the most controversial push within campaign finance reform today, and the basis for the ongoing John Doe proceedings in Wisconsin. I have previously critiqued the inevitable censorship in some reformers’ all-encompassing definition of coordination, and am optimistic that litigation in this area will foreclose it soon enough. Rauch’s argument gives further credence to just how harmful the anti-coordination quest is to American politics, begging the question of just how responsive government can be when elected officials cannot effectively communicate with interest groups or politically active citizens without risk of breaking the law.

Turning to party power, Rauch argues further against legal neutering. “Super PACs and mega-donors like [Sheldon] Adelson and [Tom] Steyer are facts of life, and the sensible thing to do now is make the best of their big bucks by attaching them to machines or parties which offer some hope of mediating and directing their influence.” This recognition of hydraulics in campaign finance—that political money suppressed one place will pop up in another—also posits that reform is itself responsible for “dark money” and many other campaign reform targets. If candidates were able to work with their parties absent red tape, it is likely that the influence of outside groups (each a sort of micro-machine) would wane. Interestingly, when attorney Jim Bopp made this argument (and not for the first time) a few weeks ago, he was summarily dismissed. Bopp is one of the godfathers of free speech challenges to campaign finance, so this dismissal was as expected, but I wonder if Rauch is so easily vilified.

Finally, one of Rauch’s most interesting arguments is one in support of political privacy, not among and within private political associations but in government itself. I pause at this, as I (like, I expect, most) take government transparency for granted, but I cannot deny that some of the arguments Ben Barr and I made in our article “Publius Was Not a PAC”—particularly that one can sometimes only speak freely when anonymous—apply just as much to elected leaders. “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible.” Rauch buttresses this argument with the recent anti-discrimination bill that passed with overwhelming support in Utah—“yes, Utah”—as a compelling example of a law drafted with a lot of backroom dealing behind it. Concessions were made by all interested parties to get the final product, and this required the ability to speak frankly and openly, free of media sensationalism and parties bent only on damaging the process. Admittedly, while I still stew on this argument I appreciate that it bolsters one of my own: surely, if government is entitled to such privacy, there should be ample protection for truly private political associations that merely speak about law, policy and candidates.

In sum, Rauch undercuts campaign finance reform almost in its entirety, showing it is at best ineffective or, more likely, counter-productive. There is a lot more to digest and discuss about Political Realism. Rauch argues against numerous changes to our political process, including primary elections (which dilute the power of our political parties that once selected candidates for general elections internally) to the elimination of earmarking in Congress (which diluted the power of party leadership to entice members). These contribute, Rauch believes, to gridlock and political polarization. I have my own reservations about some of Rauch’s other arguments—my libertarian sense is certainly concerned that if pork spending is an appropriate political tool then government largesse is inevitable and, by extension, shrinking government impossible—but on campaign finance Rauch is spot-on.

I do not expect (nor does Rauch) that the campaign reform establishment will suddenly see the error of its ways, but Political Realism‘s hard punch should rattle plenty of prophets and disciples into some serious re-examination of campaign finance platitudes. Even a little nuance could go a very long way.