Big Campaign Contributions Undermine Democracy, UMass Amherst Professor Argues in New Book

AMHERST, Mass. - The torrent of money pouring into the campaign war chests of both the Democratic and Republican members of Congress isn’t buying votes on critical issues, but the cash is subtly undermining our democracy, says University of Massachusetts professor Dan Clawson, co-author of a new book on campaign finance.

According to the book, titled "Dollars and Votes, How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy," large campaign contributions provide corporate and wealthy donors with access to public officials and key staff, which gives them the ability to get laws modified to their benefit. The money creates a web of perceived obligation between public officials and business executives that ultimately has an effect on how laws are drafted and whether they contain specific language that helps individual companies, the book says.

Clawson, professor of sociology, and co-authors Alan Newstadtl, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and Mark Weller, who teaches sociology at San Jose State University, base their conclusions on interviews with the directors of corporate political action committees (PACs). Neither the individuals nor their companies are identified, Clawson says; because of that, corporate executives were willing to be tape-recorded, providing a candid picture of how the system really works.

The authors found that business contributors, by far the largest group of donors, give money to members of both political parties and often across all ideological boundaries. Clawson also says it is a myth that contributors give money expecting a specific outcome. "On the one hand, the money is freely given and is really a gift," Clawson says. "At the same time, however, it is intended to create a sense of obligation and a channel for privileged access." Clawson says it is important to understand that business contributors don’t always get their way, but by shaping the general environment where laws are written, they do exercise a disproportionate influence over the process.

Clawson and his co-authors argue that the news media have done a poor job reporting on how the system works, in part because reporters don’t understand it and also because the media are the beneficiaries of much campaign spending. If the system is ever to be reformed, Clawson says, change will have to come from citizen pressure and some form of referendum process. "Change isn’t going to come from elected officials," Clawson says, "because they have to play the money game to get elected, and anything they pass will have loopholes in it. That’s what the current system is designed to do."