Thursday, November 5, 2015

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

[]John O McGinnis;  Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.

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.

 John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.