News & Politics

Tom Ferguson: AlterNet's Key Expert in Fighting the Battle Against Citizens United and Obscene Money Influence in Campaigns

A Q&A on money corrupting the political system with Tom Ferguson, considered by many to be America's leading expert in money and politics.

The Supreme Court's shocking decision in Citizens Unitedgave corporations some of the same political rights as people. The decision gave corporations and the wealthy the ability to spend obscene amounts of money on supposedly independent campaigns, often without transparency, as a representation of their so called "free speech rights."

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For people who have worked to reduce the influence of money on the political system, it was as bad or worse as anything they had seen in decades.

TheCitizens United decision was so bad that the campaign finance reform movement has had to start talking about a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood -- a process that could take decades -- because there are so so few options for reform.

So what do we do in the meantime? Well, one step is to get beyond the horse-race notion of how much money candidates have raised. Instead it can be more effective to analyze how the piles of contributions represent different economic interests, some of which compete with one another. It's then possible to make such interests vulnerable to public shaming and Internet campaigns that can expose them.

And AlterNet has just the person to help us with this battle. We're happy to announce that Tom Ferguson, considered by many to be America’s leading expert in money and politics, has joined AlterNet as a contributing editor. Ferguson is known as the father of the investment theory of party competition, which analyzes how investor blocs play the leading part in political systems, rather than voters. Ferguson is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has written books and numerous articles and has various other titles and associations -- for example, he is a member of the advisory board for the Institute for New Economic Thinking and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. But more importantly, Ferguson has developed his theory and works with huge databases to uncover the true nature of campaign money. Ferguson explains his work in his own words in the following short interview.

AlterNet: How is your work distinct in the field of political science?

Tom Ferguson: My favorite short take is Andrew Gelman’s: “It’s interesting reading Ferguson because his perspective is completely different from most political scientists. We talk about opinion, he talks about money.” Of course, at some point we all take account of opinion data and I’m no exception. But, yes, the core differences relate to the meaning and role of money in elections.

Political parties today are first of all bank accounts: what is said to be the voice of the people is mostly the sound of money talking. With unions in decline and community organizations basically broke or dependent on philanthropy from the 1 percent, political party conflicts mainly represent battles between investor blocs. Election analysts of course need to study the votes, but their primary problem is to puzzle out the patterns of bloc formation taking form behind specific candidates. They have to look beyond the horse race and the rhetoric to identify the specific policies that these blocs are seeking.

Studying elections from this “investment” perspective changes everything. It matters whether someone’s campaign is chiefly aligned with, say, defense industries, finance, or oil. And analyzing campaigns in this way has real predictive power. It’s like an x-ray of the system. Contrast my prediction that Obama would not promote serious financial reform, published in April 2008, after I had analyzed early money in the primaries, with what virtually everyone else was saying then.

Or, look at Congress. Congressional polarization is plainly driven first of all by money flows, and not by public opinion. Both major parties now operate virtually a “posted price” system in which representatives essentially have to buy their committee chair slots by raising money for their colleagues and, crucially, for the national party political committees. These latter are controlled by the leadership, which thus acquires enormous power over the average member. The swelling resource imbalance makes crossing party lines very costly by comparison with a generation ago.

AlterNet: What trends are you watching in the 2012 election cycle?

TF: Well, obviously, the super-PACs. These have the great merit of making obvious the money-driven character of the whole system. Anyone can see the strings leading from the puppets to the paymasters, as when Gingrich’s chief backers told him to lay off criticizing Romney and his private equity background. The GOP primaries have turned into an striking lesson in money and politics. They are seriously eroding not only the standing of the party’s candidates, but the whole political system’s legitimacy. Who could have imagined that the GOP primaries would rival Occupy Wall Street and certainly surpass anything the Obama administration has done to illuminate the real nature of power in America?

AlterNet: Why have social issues trumped economic issues thus far in the GOP primaries?

TF: Well, that was the topic of my piece for AlterNet the other week. In a nutshell, for more than a generation, the Republican Party has worked hard at making the rich stunningly richer. But you can’t campaign on that appeal for very long in elections. As a result, as the GOP deregulated and cut taxes, the party cultivated appeals to traditional “values,” religion, national defense, guns and such, while attacking gays, and often making racist appeals.

Having filled the party’s lower ranks with advocates for these causes, the party establishment now is hitting heavy weather as it strives to take advantage of what it considers its golden opportunity to campaign on economic issues. Its standard bearer, Mitt Romney, is reduced to spending fortunes trashing out his far-right challenger of the month. The primaries have become the political equivalent of the battle of Antietam, where the losses on both sides are the most important result.

AlterNet: How has the influence of money in politics changed in a post-Citizens United world?

TF: I’m not so sure it has changed all that much. We had Golden Rule long before Citizens United. But Citizens United, along with the Federal Election Commission’s craven and disgraceful unwillingness to regulate, has made money’s role obtrusive. Our system is moving into a deep crisis. It is not stable.

AlterNet: What are the significant wild cards in this election?

TF: There are several. First, obviously, the euro crisis. The European Central Bank’s massive refinancing operations have temporarily eased the credit crunch. But austerity is still the order of the day. It is quite possible that one or more of the southern rim countries will explode politically or collapse economically. If a major bank knocks over, creating a reverse Lehman, then the shock waves will transmit immediately to the US. That could reverse any economic tides now running slightly in favor of the Democrats here.

Then there is the question of the future of movements like Occupy Wall Street. An election campaign in the midst of large-scale protests directed at the system as a whole is hardly unprecedented – think Chicago 1968 – but it is hard to calculate. It is clear that the public is not deeply attached to either of the major parties and it certainly does not want budgetary austerity imposed on it.

There is also the price of oil; at the current price, the president is facing some serious potential problems, especially since he has allowed Attorney General Holder’s task force on speculation to wither. The prospect of a fiscal tightening right after the election from budget cuts and temporary tax cuts expiring may further weigh down the economy.

Finally, there is the possibility that the Israelis might attack Iran or someone else in that neighborhood might provoke an attack. That would create overnight a very dramatic situation. The Suez crisis, which occurred in the middle of the U.S. presidential election in 1956, is supposed to have provoked German Chancellor Adenauer to advise the French that the only way they could counterbalance the U.S. was to move to a more united Europe. That they did. I suppose we could witness an ironic counterpoint to the euro crisis, in which the U.S. finally shatters its position in the world in a final, fabulously expensive spasm of imperial overstretch.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.