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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 United gave 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."

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.

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