Democracy gone astray

As the United States presidential election approaches, The Life of Ideas/Books & Ideas And Public Books propose a joint dossier examining how money influences the course of electoral democracies.

While no one could have predicted that 2020 would be the year of the Covid-19 epidemic, we did know that this year would be particularly political: the continuation of tough Brexit negotiations, the holding of French municipal elections and, to top it all off, a presidential election in the United States.

As part of their editorial partnership, the journals The Life of Ideas/Books&Ideas And Public Books therefore wanted to approach this sequence by proposing a file on “democracy perverted by money”. In a context of growing distrust of politics and, in particular, of political parties, our ambition was to examine anew the way in which money continues to influence the course of our electoral democracies, by focusing more specifically on democracies in Europe and the United States. Our starting point was the following: can we still cling to the tenacious postulate according to which “money makes the election”? If so, in what way(s)? And what if we really decided to follow to the letter the advice given by Gorge Profonde (Deep Throat) to Bob Woodward: “Follow the money” (“ Follow the money “), where would that lead us?

With 15 days to go before an important electoral event, for citizens of the United States but also far beyond, we offer our readers four original contributions – each of the journals having commissioned 2 – addressing the issue of campaign financing in similar contexts but from quite different angles.

The authors approached by The Life of Ideas/Books and Ideas have undertaken a detailed sociological analysis of the rules governing the financing (public and private) of political parties in the United Kingdom (Emmanuelle Avril), in France and in the United States (Éric Phélippeau), particularly with regard to the strengthening of the requirement for transparency and publicity in these countries. Both conclude on their effects mixednot only in terms of regulating funding disparities but also in terms of reducing citizens’ distrust of their political institutions.

The tests ordered by Public Books have adopted a rather different angle in scope and style. Focusing on the United States, Ray LaRaja starts from a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2010, criticized in particular by progressives as having opened the door to corporate money in election campaigns, allowing certain individual candidacies to be favored. LaRaja, however, changes the focus: the problem is not so much that companies influence the election of candidates – since the objectives pursued by the latter are varied – but their disproportionate role in shaping political options, particularly in economic matters.

Tim Kuhner, for his part, goes back to the Chartist movement in England in the XVIIIe century and demands for universal suffrage and the abolition of the property qualification, with the hope of stemming the influence of large landowners on political life. Hence the question: what would the Chartists have done in the present period? One might think that their demands have been largely satisfied. However, the advance of formal rights seems to have had little effect in reducing inequalities.

These essays, while diverging in terms of normative stance, agree on one crucial point: the question of financing is central to understanding political life and the issues at stake in electoral campaigns. It is therefore more necessary than ever to “follow the money wherever it goes”, especially since it is massively invested in and by the political field. The contributions also find themselves in the observation of a very great diversity of the modalities but also of the purposes of financing going beyond the simple fact of winning an election. Finally, all the articles question avenues aimed at improving access, in the political game, of the least endowed groups. Indeed, the observation of persistent economic and social inequalities in the financing of political life emerges as the most problematic variable on the democratic level undermining confidence in institutions.

From then on, it would not be so much a question of taking money out of the game in the name of a “moralization” of political life, as of putting more players around the table…