Research confirms common sense -- money does influence politics

May 4, 2016
Sharman Haley

OPINION: Major political campaign donors don't give out of civic virtue, they give for results - and the recipients are inclined to provide them.

I applaud David Finklestein’s and Charles Wolforth’s courage in candidly stating how, despite their sincere efforts to be ethical, campaign contributions influenced their votes while in office. “It’s almost human nature,” said Finklestein. Common-knowledge practice and cognitive science both confirm this.

Major campaign contributors would not be contributing so much if they didn’t think they are getting something for their contributions. It is not just a coincidence that they donate to the very politicians who make the decisions that directly affect the donor's financial interests. Big donors have more access to legislators to express their views. In addition to hobnobbing with the candidate at expensive $500-a-plate dinners, they can get a lunch date or an audience with the legislator most any time they ask. Politicians and staff bend over backwards to court and maintain good personal relations with their major donors, whether or not they agree on the political issues. They remember their names and concerns.

And cognitive science shows how even subtle differences in our experience or environment influence our decisions in ways that we are not even aware of. Max Bazerman, author of the classic text "Judgment in Managerial Decision Making," explains that when thinking over a new topic the more familiar ideas or associations arise first (the “availability heuristic”), and the ideas that arise first bias our decisions (“framing effects” or “status quo bias”). These cognitive biases are inherent in the way our brains are wired. Everybody is affected by them. Bazerman goes on to discuss how we can work to minimize the effects of these biases in our decision-making. First and foremost is recognizing the potential biases and monitoring our decision-making processes to mitigate them. Other authors emphasize the importance of consciously seeking diverse opinions and information sources. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book "Nudge" focus on the design of the context for the decision. They support thoughtful design to better support decision-making that is in keeping with our core values and higher intentions. This includes removing temptations and incentives that might bias our decisions in ways that we do not intend. For example, a receptionist wanting to limit her intake of sweets might move the candy dish away from her desk, where it is constantly in her sight, to the coffee area where it is less tempting to her.

If we want our elected representatives to weigh the interests and opinions of all their constituents equally when making public decisions, we must actively work to minimize the influence of money in elections and legislative deliberations. It is fundamental to our democracy that money is not the same as speech and should not be protected under the First Amendment in the same way. Our elected representatives must have the authority to adopt ethics laws and reasonable limits on campaign contributions to minimize the influence of money in public affairs. Of course the incumbents may have a self-serving bias in their judgment on these issues, but we also know by example that they can choose to act with knowledge and integrity to serve the higher public interest.

A group of donors supporting candidates in Alaska are currently arguing to the U.S. District Court that Alaska’s $500 limit on campaign contributions violates free-speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Alaska’s campaign finance law was enacted in 1996 with broad citizen support.

A legion of citizens right here in Anchorage are working to overturn the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United by amending the Constitution to clarify that money is not speech. In our democratic system the citizens are the supreme authority, and it is up to us to correct the errors of the court majority.

Sharman Haley holds a PhD in economics, teaches behavioral science and public policy and is a member of Anchorage Move to Amend.

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