By Adam Stromme
Editor-in-Chief, International Relations & Economics Undergraduate Student
Mark Hanna, the legendary Gilded Age political manager was fond of saying: “It takes three things to run a political campaign in America: Money, money, and I forgot the third thing…” Following the money, and the dash of cynicism which is always a safe bet to bring to the American political system, are as American to political commentary as apple pie. But when faith in government is polling at levels unprecedented in American history, Republican obstructionism is becoming the stuff of legend, and Congressional productivity is far and away the lowest it has ever been, one begins to wish that it wasn’t so.
But by almost every barometer, from ideological polarization in Congress to voter turnout, something is desperately out of whack with American politics. And although it has become remarkably fashionable to self rationalize the rise of the demagoguery on the Far Right and the Further Right, as columnists Left and Right and even here in St Andrews have done, to do so without consideration to the drivers this time around is remarkably naive. All respect to Mr. Yeh for bringing some needed historical context to the table, but I fail to see the Republican spectacle of today as being explained purely by a faith in electoral extremism that ebbs and flows with the predictability of the tides.
By almost every barometer, from ideological polarization in Congress to voter turnout, something is desperately out of whack with American politics.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to set up the way the political game usually works. Keying in the insight of Hanna, the famous political scientist Thomas Ferguson lays out the Investment Theory of Party Competition, and its insights have historically proven remarkably effective. The intuition at its core is very simple; if you want to know how a politician is going to act, look at who their backers are, how much they have pledged, and what their interests are. There are websites and applications where one can do this with very little work, and it does wonders to explaining why certain legislators enter the fray on specific issues.
But one should be wary of remembering the other side of this electoral coin. On the opposite, much less flattering side, it hold central the intuition that investors in the American electoral process are in effect vetting to control the State in order to generate a return through legislative reform. Its that simple, and for much of American history, from the days of Hanna to today, an effective model for describing how the prevalence of electoral considerations increasingly dominate Congressional ones.
The sheer insanity of 2016 has lain bare a problem for this profit motive approach to government.
But it is not without its limitations. The sheer insanity of 2016 has lain bare a problem for this profit motive approach to government; an agitated population tends to behave less predictably, risking the investments of those who are actually bankrolling the whole show. Hence, the far Right’s embrace of Evangelical extremism and conspiracy theorists on the airwaves is not to be condemned from the perspective of any moral consideration, but purely by the fact that it risks making the candidates unelectable.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats play by the same rules. The key difference arises again from institutional backers fighting for the status-quo, which in contestation to the Republicans now amounts to a defense of the right of the government to exist. But in times of increased democratic participation, the party has opened itself to a broadside from the dreaded “grassroots” candidates whom the Democratic party stifles without a hint of irony given its name.
So what should the Investment Theory of Party Competition tell us about 2016? Is it not less relevant in this turbulent electoral cycle dominated by Trump and flanked by Sanders?
What it can tell us is this. The establishment candidates are going to be those with the prerequisite degree of institutional backing and favorable policy for institutional investors. After all, if the oil industry backs one candidate, who loses to another who proposes the same legislation, then of what cost is it to them? The demand from these actors is uniformity in policy as much as responsiveness to their specific demands, and in that regard 2016, particularly amongst the Republicans, is little different than other elections.
The establishment candidates are going to be those with the prerequisite degree of institutional backing and favorable policy for institutional investors.
It also tells us that fringe candidates, so defined not by the reasonableness of vision of their policy prescriptions but by their uniformity with other investor-sanctioned candidates, are going to be universally condemned. Hence the absolutely absurd comparisons in the media of Trump and Sanders, both considered outsiders despite the institutional support and deranged demagoguery of the former and the alignment of many of the policies of the latter with the easily forgotten American electorate.
While this election season has heated up remarkably quickly, the game hasn’t changed entirely. So when following 2016, keep in mind those who have literally put their money where their mouth is. Ferguson doesn’t buy much of the rhetoric screaming around Washington, and neither should you, but he is keenly aware that the only thing that matters as much as money to politicians are votes. And if a candidate like Sanders is able to upset the rules of the game, it will be a truly unprecedented affair.
When following 2016, keep in mind those who have literally put their money where their mouth is.
So whether one Feels the Bern, Stands with Hillary, or dares venture further Rightward, the important take away is to never let conviction keep you from that gilded maxim of American Politics: “Follow the Money.”
Feature image by “Alex”
Secondary image by Jon Sullivan