As Wisconsin’s “John Doe” investigation into conservative activists sputters to an inglorious end, the mainstream media is finally examining what’s taken place in this investigation over the last five years. It’s not a pretty picture, as reported by National Review. Families terrorized during pre-dawn raids; doors battered down and personal property ransacked; and most chillingly of all, threats from law enforcement not to speak a word of what happened or the victims would face prosecution.
What “crime” prompted these aggressive and invasive police-state actions? Donations provided to express support for Act 10, which limited the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin’s public sector unions. The prosecutors concocted a trumped-up theory that these independent expenditures were unreported “in kind” donations to political candidates, a pretext that has since been rejected by two judges and will soon (it is predicted here) receive a final rejection and overdue burial by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Everyone should be shocked by these abuses of power, even (and perhaps especially) stalwart opponents of Gov. Scott Walker. If prosecuting politically unpopular speech becomes the “new normal,” you can bet this tactic will be embraced by both parties. Left-wing individuals and groups are at least as guilty of coordinating their expenditures and efforts with Democrats as conservatives are with Republicans. And, as progressives are well aware, Republicans are solidly in control of Wisconsin’s legislature and executive offices, and they’re likely to remain in power for some time.
Republicans’ near-monopoly over the machinery of state government makes the left rather than the right more vulnerable to future John Doe abuses. If the Supreme Court does not unambiguously repudiate the basis for the current John Doe probe, the GOP is empowered to launch similar investigations into left-leaning organizations in 2016 and beyond. The next group at the business end of a John Doe battering ram could be One Wisconsin Now rather than the Club for Growth.
You would think every commentary on John Doe would recognize this danger, but you would be wrong. Take Chris Rickert’s recent column for the Wisconsin State Journal (please). The sometimes-sensible Rickert called the outrage over the John Doe raids “self-righteous whining” and even claimed “what the targets of the raids are suspected of doing is not significantly less wrong than, say, drug-dealing, gang-banging or other crimes worthy of a police raid. In fact, in some ways, it’s worse.” Rickert believes showing support for Act 10 is worse than drive-by shootings because “money in politics” is “just as harmful to democracy as voter fraud or corrupt elected officials.”
There’s so much wrong with this, beginning with the fact that what conservative activists were doing was perfectly legal and consistent with rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. Concern over a perceived problem also doesn’t give anyone the right to act like Jesse James. Joe McCarthy was deeply troubled by the plague of worldwide communism and ruined lives with unsubstantiated allegations, but even he didn’t order police to break down doors in the middle of the night.
The John Doe victims were also ordinary citizens, not fat-cat billionaires. When everyday people work together to advocate a political position in the public square, it isn’t a perversion of grassroots democracy: it is grassroots democracy.
I also agree with my Isthmus colleague Dave Cieslewicz that money matters less in elections than Wisconsin Democrats think. Of course a certain amount of money is helpful, but the idea that campaign contributions “buy elections” is disproven in every election cycle. If you don’t believe me, ask Republican “Gov.” Meg Whitman or “Sen.” Carly Fiorina from California (where money matters far more than in Wisconsin).
Most fundamentally, Rickert’s complaint has the problem exactly backwards. There’s too much money in politics because there’s too much politics in American society. Corporations and wealthy individuals are directing more resources towards the political process for the same reason Willy Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is.
Government has steadily increased its regulation and control over economic activity for decades, which means private sector profits increasingly depend on government policies. This naturally draws the attention of business owners and investors towards politics and attempts to influence legislative and regulatory choices. The inexorable growth in government distorts the entire pattern of rewards throughout the economy and shifts attention towards rent-seeking and away from innovation. A depressing consequence of these trends is that seven of the 10 richest U.S. counties are now centered around Washington D.C., a city that transfers and re-distributes wealth but doesn’t create it.
When government pokes its nose into every nook and cranny of the body politic, money in politics is inevitable. Attempts to control and dampen this demand for political influence lead to increasingly Byzantine campaign finance rules, which in turn only foster more creative ways of funneling money into the process that are consistent with the new rules.
Don’t like money in politics? Drain the swamp, and transfer power and resources from bureaucrats and elected officials back to private individuals. Any other “solution” is ultimately futile.
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.