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Why Campaign Finance “Reform” Would Make Politics More Like Academia

The Republican debate on CNBC confirms that campaign finance reform would boost the progressive agenda, because it shows the depth of bias in the free media. The questions of reporters–even those who worked for a business news network– tended to be premised on the need for one government program or another to solve a social problem.  As William McGurn noted, in the Democratic debate reporters do not grill the candidates with questions from a small government perspective. And CNBC reporters are not the exception; studies show that media reporters lean strongly left.

It is the capacity of the media to shape the political agenda that puts Republicans on the defensive during campaigns. It is only at election time when citizens have more motivation to listen that independent political messages can puncture that progressive agenda control. That is the reason that Progressives want to reduce such messaging. Campaign finance reform magnifies the power of the agenda control that the media has the rest of the year.

One of the best comments in the debate was precisely to this effect, although it was not said in the context of a debate about campaign finance reform. Marco Rubio stated that the mainstream media was a ”Superpac for Democrats.” And despite being the debate’s single most striking observation, somehow the reporters for the New York Times neglected to mention it.

The debate also demonstrates how bias in the media resembles bias in the academic world. The bias is mostly unconscious, but ever present. Reporters just are not very interested in arguments about limited government or the virtues of the market. What gets them excited is discussing the next government program and thus Republicans are not part of the preferred conversation. Jonathan Adler observes the same phenomenon in academics. Most legal academics are not consciously biased against conservatives and libertarians. But most are also just not that interested in their ideas, such as formalism in interpretation.

The academic world faces no popular elections or similarly powerful external shocks that can shift the direction of its conversation  And because professors have tenure, the same bounds of discussion can stay in place for decades, particularly in non-scientific disciplines that are not disciplined by data. Thus, another way of understanding campaign finance constraints  is that such restrictions will make national politics operate more like academia.  The bias of the media would then have even more pervasive effects on our politics.

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on November 04, 2015 at 09:05:35 am

Professor McGinnis argues here that a likely consequence of campaign finance reform would be to promote progressive agendas, because doing so would enhance the power of the media, and the media tends to lean left. The media shape and constrain political discourse, and the media tend to be leftist. Maybe so--the argument here is interesting, and worth taking seriously, but it is asserted, not deminstrated. For the first several paragraphs I found myself nodding along, thinking about what he was arguing. So far so good.

But then I got to this: "That is the reason that Progressives want to reduce such messaging. Campaign finance reform magnifies the power of the agenda control that the media has the rest of the year."

This statement strikes me as implausible, but also irresponsible. You see, it turns out that all progressives, all the time, think in lock step. And we can not take anything they say at face value. They may (and do!) proclaim that they support campaign reform for other reasons, but that is just dissimulation. Really, they are all dishonest. All of them. We do not have to actually engage with what they have to say--you know, actually *talk* to them, try to reason with them, because we know a priori and on the basis of deductive reasoning that they are all lying scumbags. Thet may (and do) advance other arguments. They may (and do) say that they support campaign finance reform for honorable, decent reasons--but we do not have to engage with their reasoning, because we know ahead of time that what they say is not what they mean. Their reasoning may or may not be sound, but we do not care, because while we may not be able to see into the hearts of most men, it turns out that we can apprehend the hearts of progressives. And we know with confidence it is a black, wicked heart.

This is an example of what Richard Hofstader, in a penetrating analysis written half a century ago, referred to as "the paranoid style of American politics." It is irrational and corrosive to deliberative public discourse. Indeed, if McGinnis is right, this whole conversation is irrelevant, because deliberative, Madisonian democracy is not only not possible for us today, it is not possible for anybody, under even the best circumstances.

But if McGinnis is wrong here--and I believe he is, on ethical and theological grounds--then it is destructive of deliberative discourse to make the rhetorical move that he makes here. It is irresponsible to do so, because it stokes the irrational and destructive penchant to assert the existence of wicked conspiracies at the core of the public positions we oppose. I believe, on theological grounds, that I do not have privileged access to the actual motivations of other people. God knows your deepest motivations, just as he does mine. But I do not know yours, and you do not know mine. So unless I have rock solid reasons to think you are lying, the humble, and theologically sound, thing to do is to take what you actually have to say seriously.

I should assert the existence of conspiracies only when I have rock solid evudence that they actually exist. And here, it seems unlikely that there is some secret cabal among media types to lie about why they think it might be desirable to reform our system of campaign finance.

Stoking the fires of paranoia and fear of conspiracy is irresponsible for another reason as well. Stephen Hunter wrote a fine analysis some years ago of just one corner of our public discourse, the public argument over abortion. The book is called Before the Shooting Begins. I recommend it. In that book, Hunter compares the public division over abortion to the public debate in the 1850s over abolition. He points out that before you can have the bloodletting that happens in a civil war, you have to believe that the people you oppose are so bad that they deserve to be killed. You may not get to violence if you demonize your opponent, but it is much less likely to wind up there if you do not.

Indulging the paranoid style, as McGinnis does here, is a form of demonization. If we follow his assumptions, we know that all progressives--not just a few, but every single one of them--are at their core liars. Because we know that deep down, they (unlike us) are motivated solely by the will to power, and there is nothing remotely honorable or decent in their aspirations, there is no point in arguing with them. Its not a far leap from that to the conclusion that, when it comes to progressives, normal political processes are inappropriate. Since their hearts are black, their motivations impure, their character untrustworthy, the only way we can settle our differences with such people is by violence.

Let us all pray that it never again, in our country, come to that.

All best wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 04, 2015 at 09:29:09 am

Kevin, please re-read McGinnis's post, and then your own. One of them -- and only one -- is bursting at the seams with paranoia, with exaggerated rhetoric designed to demonize an opponent, and with extreme mischaracterization the opponent's statements. And I don't think it's the original post.

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BMan
on November 04, 2015 at 10:00:33 am

I do not think I am mistaken about what Professor McGinnis argues.

He is clearly right that the media plays an important role in shaping public discourse. He is right to attend to its function establishing the limits, the parameters, of what is legitimate to discuss and what not. And he is clearly right that much of the media shares progressive assumptions, at a deep level.

But he also makes the claim that he knows *why* the various members of the media think as they do about campaign finance reform. So he really is asserting that he has privileged access into their real motivations. And the motivations he ascribes to them are very much different from what *they* actually argue. They argue that they want to advance democracy. He argues that what they really want is to advance their own power to dictate the limits of the cinversation. What they are really after, he says, is power (his words, not mine).

The implication is that we don't have to engage with their actual arguments. And, for the reasons I describe above, that is dangerous.

All best,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 04, 2015 at 10:22:33 am

Kevin:

"The implication is that we don’t have to engage with their actual arguments. And, for the reasons I describe above, that is dangerous."

Yes, indeed, there is a pronounced danger in not engaging in a constructive argument, to the extent that is possible with committed leftists - some not all; yet, I take McGinnis to actually be arguing to the contrary. It appears to me that McGinnis' point regarding the effects of campaign finance reform is precisely that such *reforms* if enacted would in due course LIMIT the countering arguments of the right against the prevailing bias of the media (however so motivated).
No, it seems to me that McGinnis is actually arguing for active (more active than during non-electoral seasons) debate on political topics / ideologies. It would, of course, be preferable if this *debate* were possible at all times in the media mechanisms that are available - but clearly there is a leftist tilt to it. Folks like you and I do not have either the time nor financial resources to "buy" editorial time; nor for that matter are our letters to the editor more than infrequently published. Thus, most folks simply "put up with it", eventually give up and simmer in frustration. MCGinnis point about the *heightened* emphasis (concentration of the voters, perhaps?) during electoral season is also very valid. If large donors are unable to buy ad or editorial time / space during election season, then the typical voter may once again confront a "data deficit" and may very well resort to the "give up" and "simmer" modes. This, I think, would not bode well for our democracy and could eventually lead to the violence that you so rightly deplore.

If, on the other hand, I misread McGinnis, then you are clearly correct. It is troublesome, at best, to fail to engage in argument simply because one believes that "THE OTHER" is evil, etc.

I suspect McGinnis does not believe that.

anyway,
take care as always
gabe

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gabe
on November 04, 2015 at 10:51:23 am

Gabe--

You write generously, and I think that BMan is probably right to call me to account for failing to do so in my original post.

I do not know what Professor McGinnis really believes. I can make inferences, but I am, I think properly, acutely aware of my own frailty. Sometimes--often!--the inferences I draw are just flat out wrong. I think it likely that my frailty--of which I am quite certain (if nothing else, witness the profusion of embarassing typos and grammatical errors in my recent posts!)--is broadly shared. It may indeed be universal.

So when you frame the argument as you do above, I find it quite plausible. I am not sure I am convinced, on this basis, to reject reform, but it certainly and usefully problematizes it.

Notice that in making this argument, you avoid concern with the motivations of the people advocating reform. Since I think it takes an extraordinary effort to get at the real motives of anybody--the kind of earnest effort you and I make in our correspondence, for example--I think the prudent thing to do is to avoid even getting into the issue at unless there is strong reason to do so.

My objection to Professor McGinnis' essay here is that he does ascribe motives to the people with whom he disagrees. He does it in a kind of off-hand or cavalier way--as an aside to his argument. But by doing that--and by suggesting that what really motivates them is not what they say motivates them--he opens the door to demonizing them.

Permit me to extend my own reasoning. Not only am I frail, I presume Professor McGinnis is too. The charitable thing is to assume, as you do above, that he is not really committed to the implications of his words. If that is the case, then perhaps my screed in my original post performs a useful service. I'd like to think that--it was an intemperate post, but perhaps nonetheless good can come from it.

Well wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 04, 2015 at 11:01:20 am

Well certainly include me in the class of "frail" - homo frailus, I suppose.

But yes, i think some good has come of this. Certainly for me - it helped clarify something I have been thinking about re: campaign finance reform and the need to maintain, as you also suggest, an active sphere of debate.

Anyway, take care
gabe

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gabe
on November 04, 2015 at 12:43:34 pm

I have some of the same concerns as McGinnis, but with a slightly different perspective.

The management in media organizations select reporters who support their personal agendas. It isn't just that reporters tend to be left-leaning. The hiring managers are left-leaning, which means they tend to hire reporters who are left-leaning. The reporters in general are left-leaning, not so much because they conspire together, but because they reflect their hiring managers' biases.

As for the reforms, I have the same concern, but only if certain types of reforms are enacted. Those types of reforms would be reforms that reduced the ability of the politicians to communicate.

Communication is not the issue with reform, abuse of finances is. Reforms that address the abuse of finances without negating the ability of the politicians to speak are not at all problematic. I believe the McGinnis' concern is only considering a certain type of reform; reform that negates the ability of the candidates and their supporters to speak.

In the House I see no problem with wealthy organizations tipping the scales slightly in their favor, since they produce wealth, and we all benefit from more wealth. But as a caveat, the proposed laws must have objective oversight when being considered for approval. Reform in the House isn't as much of an issue as is reform in the Senate where it is highly critical.

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Scott Amorian
on November 04, 2015 at 13:01:56 pm

James Davison Hunter wrote "Before the Shooting Begins." Liberals like to portray conservatives as "paranoid," because it discredits the accuracy of their perceptions. I agree with John. And recall the aphorism "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

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Mark Pulliam
on November 04, 2015 at 13:08:19 pm

John McGinnis is in a most uncomfortable place--a right-thinking person in legal academia. He is literally behind enemy lines. I credit his judgment about how liberals think because he is surrounded by them. I share his sense that the liberal mind is monolithic, dishonest, and result-oriented. Does that make me paranoid? I consider it to be appropriately realistic.

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Mark Pulliam
on November 04, 2015 at 14:45:08 pm

But wait, there's more!

New organizations exist to make money. They make money by selling advertising. To make the most money, they sell advertising that brings in the most sales to the advertisers. The advertisers want to make the most sales from the least expensive advertising.

That means that either a lot of cheap advertising goes out, and the news organization and the advertisers get enough sales to justify higher costs--email spam is based on that--or the advertisers target an audience that is most likely to make a purchase using more expensive campaigns. Expensive advertising is highly targeted.

There are two reasons why an audience member is highly likely to respond to an ad. Either the audience has an immediate need for something. Or the audience is easy to influence by the ads--they are influenced by Jedi mind tricks in other words.

"These are not the droids you want. You want this new and improved droid over here. And if you act now ..."

Some organizations use laboratories to study the effects of messaging on viewers, hooking electrodes up to their heads while they watch commercials, and the like. [See a recent article, Reuters, "TV networks open labs to read the minds of viewers," Nov 11. Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/04/us-tv-neuroscience-research-insight-idUSKCN0ST0IS20151104]. They have been doing these kinds of studies since the 1970's at least.

It is the latter group of suggestible people who come into play with politically biased news reporting.

The news organizations report the news in such a way that they attract an audience that is highly likely to purchase advertised items. In simple terms, they target the most gullible audience they can. To some degree advertisers know, based on statistics, what you need right now, but that isn't the primary focus of their ads. If you watch commercials closely you will see that they target gullibility more than need.

The political bias in reporting is in part a reflection of human gullibility. That is how they make the greatest profits. The news organizations choose to bias the news towards the populist mentality since populists are the most easily led, and therefore most likely to make a purchase based on advertising. The bigger the news organization the more expensive the advertising, the more focused the ads must be, so the more biased the reporting.

The bias in the popular press is based in large part on the desire to maximize profits. I wonder what the bias in academia comes from.

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Scott Amorian
on November 04, 2015 at 16:23:11 pm

Scott:

There is much to what you say and it puts a different spin on Marshall McCluhan phrase that "The medium is the message."

"The bias in the popular press is based in large part on the desire to maximize profits. I wonder what the bias in academia comes from."

Yep!!!! There is a clear desire to maximize profits even for these proponents of income equality and the scourge of corporatism.
Yet, what I find myself confused about is the popular (MSM) media's advocacy of campaign finance reform. If enacted, it would seem that the media would stand to lose some significant (albeit discontinuous) source of revenue. Large donors monies often go to media campaigns. Without the infusion of these funds to the political parties coffers, would we expect to see the amount of "political ad-time" that we are currently *blessed* with? What effect would this have on the profit of the networks and media conglomerates?
After all, even if I did contribute to "your campaign for governor" it would not be enough to fund a full page ad or even a millisecond of TV time.
It seems to me that the media need to have the current system whereby multimillion dollar ad buys during the electoral cycle (funded by big donors) provides a boost to their bottom lines.
So why the advocacy for a policy / legislation that would curtail their revenue stream?

Something else must also factor in the equation - and I suspect it may have been already stated by you in your earlier post: Leftists hire leftists and all advance the same policy prescriptions. It provides a sense of solidarity, confirms their self-acknowledged moral superiority and provides also a "teaspoonful" of the cup of power.

Gee, that may not be too different from academia whose denizens seek the same ends but may also be said to long for personal distinction in their particular field; after all, tenure is hard to come by, especially for a conservative!

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gabe
on November 04, 2015 at 19:11:22 pm

Well, the old adage has a ring of truth to it: its not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

But where does that leave us? If all progressives really are monolithically likeminded, dishonest, and pragmatic to the point of being unprincipled, maybe we would be better off if we shipped them up to an Alaskan gulag for "re-education?"

But can we agree that a nation that does that kind of thing is, just perhaps, not the kind of nation we hope our nation ever to be? That to become that kind of nation is to give up precisely those values which we hold, and should hold, most dear?

So if what you describe really is the situation we confront today, what do you propose we do about it?

If conservatives give up on persuasion, we lose. I fully get the frustration, but surrendering to it is to give up on the values that make conservatism worthy of our allegiance in the first place.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 04, 2015 at 19:23:30 pm

Yes, thank you for correcting me. Stephen Hunter writes some pretty compelling novels, but is not the guy to whom I was trying to refer.

The paranoid style, at least as Hofstader described it, is a feature of populism and a distemper found in democratic, as opposed to republican, polities. Both of our parties are populist, and the republucan features of modern American polities are attenuated. I would not wish to argue that the only conspiracy theories out there are liberal.

Hunter, whatever you may think of his argument, is not a modern progressive. He is a conservative intellectual, albeit an iconoclastic one.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 04, 2015 at 19:48:10 pm

Kevin:

I would agree that if a) ALL Progressives are monolitic, etc and b) that we are now a nation where the only recourse is to cut off discourse THAN we are doomed.

I think we should all bear in mind that even if the majority of Progressives are so predisposed to a) adhere to their Progressive precepts with the zealotry of the newly converted and / or ideologically entrenched and b) to be rather resistant to counter argument / suasion, this does not demonstrate that all such Progressives are so inclined.

What I suspect is occurring, and i admit to this "frailty" myself, is that in our frustration we tend to *mark* all who hold such views as guilty of the same zealotry and hidebound attitudes of the more ideologically committed. While this is understandable, it is nevertheless counterproductive.

To my mind, there are a fair number of Progressives who have not examined their positions with the care and consideration that such political positions justly deserve. Clearly, this is also true of many conservatives. A late friend once described a neighboring couple as "one is deeply conservative and the other is deeply progressive; neither one of them can explain why." I suspect that what IS true for my neighbors may also be true for many adherents of the Progressive Left.

It is for us, or those like us, to consider, prepare and propagate such arguments (messages) as may be both necessary and sufficient to persuade them of the alternative.
Sadly, we do not seem to be able to do this all that well.
More importantly, we do not seem to have any political leaders ( the term is used advisedly here) who are either capable or willing to construct and convey such messages. I have, in other blog pages, advocated employing a tool from Ronald Reagan's playbook when our messaging fails and consequently becomes rather infrequently employed. HUMOR!!! Ronnie Rayguns was a master at this and quite successful. He was able to communicate some deep truths about the American character / system of government without a confrontational attitude and without straining the *time-limited political attention span" of the average citizen (recalling if you will the rational ignorance theory of political non-participation).

I am as guilty of this as are many others - the frustration that we express is not simply with the Lefties - but with our own inability to so construct and convey effective messaging as a counter to the prevailing common perceptions. No, I do not here intend to dismiss the overwhelming leftist tilt of the MSM and the Academy; rather only to point out that things are not hopeless - but we all need to do a significantly better job of messaging (and edifying and instructing). More than anything, we need to demonstrate via everyday examples of governmental "intervention(s)" into every citizens everyday affairs. I think folks would be surprised to see what the response of the average citizen would be to this form of "education."

take care
gabe

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gabe
on November 04, 2015 at 19:55:45 pm

And here is just one of many daily examples of government interventions wherein a fisherman goes to jail for too many flounder and drug dealers are set to be released.
Ah, what a wonderful world!!!!

http://hotair.com/archives/2015/11/04/as-feds-reduce-sentences-for-drug-dealers-ny-fisherman-gets-jail-time-for-too-many-flounder/

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gabe
on November 05, 2015 at 16:34:07 pm

And just for your information, here is Justice Kennedy defending Citizens United decision:

No, that wasn’t right at all. Justice Kennedy also pointed out a major problem with left-wing criticisms of Citizens United: I wasn’t surprised The New York Times was incensed their little monopoly to affect our thinking was taken away. I was surprised how virulent their attitude was [toward corporate speech]. Last time I looked, The New York Times was a corporation. This [attitude] meant the Sierra Club, the chamber of commerce in a small town couldn’t take out an ad. Spot on.

Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/426653/justice-kennedy-vigorously-defends-citizens-united-jonathan-keim

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gabe

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