From Columbia to Washington: Campaign Finance with Professor Richard John

A bubble isolated from certain realities of American life, college campuses offer fruitful ground for experiments in utopian visions and true egalitarianism. Recently completing my freshman Columbia College Student Council campaign, I appreciated this exploration of and commitment to ensuring a level playing field, as a ban on campaign spending forced campus candidates to promote platforms over fundraising, and encouraged creative campaigning. My experiences on campus begged the question, how is Columbia’s campaign finance policy applicable in the real world of American politics?

Thus, I embarked on a mission to understand campaign finance beyond Columbia’s gates.

My exploration led me to Professor Richard John, teacher and advisor to students in Columbia’s Ph.D. program in communications, and core faculty member in Columbia’s history department. Clad in glasses and a quirky, neon tie, and hidden behind a teetering stack of musty books, Professor John was a vision of college academia. On the Friday of Homecoming weekend, October 13th, John and I ventured forth into the world of campaign finance.



Beginning the interview at a macro level, John identified the function of campaign finance regulation as creating “a level playing field for candidates to limit special interests from unduly shaping the public sphere.” John added that while campaign finance regulation serves the goal of ensuring a norm of fairness, we, as a nation, and our legislative bodies, have lost sight of this aim.

Given this trend, I asked Professor John about the challenges moving forward for campaign finance reform advocates. How could the norm of fairness be restored and what challenges would advocates face? John identified three essential challenges in campaign finance reform.

First, John critiqued the presence of laws that encourage a weakening of institutional intermediaries by allowing significant amounts of money to enter campaigns. Most recently, many argue that the Citizens United ruling and a couple of related court cases accelerated the deterioration of this norm of campaign fairness. It eliminated laws barring “express advocacy” and “electioneering”, essentially allowing any corporate funds “to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why...right up to Election Day” (Bai). It also replaced 527s and social welfare groups with super PACs, the key difference being that super PACs are required to disclose the identity of its donors. The rulings served to make extensive corporate spending simpler by essentially eliminating corporate caps on spending, and gave corporations the same right to political speech as individuals (Bai). John’s primary concern regarding the effects of Citizens United is its weakening of institutional political intermediaries. As a historian, John reflected on the historical function of parties in channelling political energies, a function rapidly eroding as campaigns fall out of the hands of parties and into the hands of super PAC messaging. For John, the idea that special interest groups are trying to shape the electorate independent of any institutional intermediary is unsettling. Looking to the future, John calls on major social media players, like Facebook, to recognize their function and role in acting as intermediaries and regulators.

Social media plays an essential role in the next challenge for campaign finance reform, as John establishes the need to regulate social media firms as we enter an age where politics increasingly plays out on facebook pages and twitter feeds. Groups like Facebook and Google possess significant information on individual preferences and political profiles, allowing for easy, targeted marketing at the individual level. Further, as seen in the recent Russian investigations, protection of national boundaries on social media is essential to the preservation of our democratic process. Given the generational transition from traditional media outlets to social media, campaign funds may be poured into market research, making John’s call to action particularly pertinent.

Finally, John highlighted the lack of discourse on America’s historical concern with extreme disparities in wealth beginning with our founding fathers. For John, the idea that there should be no financial restrictions on campaigning is founded upon the notion that we are “sanguine about egregious disparities in wealth,” a notion that “runs directly counter to our founder’s fear of oligarchy and extreme economic inequality.” John posits that if we claim to care about the constitution as a living document, the public discourse needs to be concerned with more than just the second amendment. Rather, we need to be aware of existing levels of inequality as would have been recognized by our founders.

Columbia students, as the rising generation of politicians and concerned citizens, have a particular responsibility to hear and act on the concerns of Professor John and the questions raised by our nation’s campaign finance regulation. John ended our interview with the words “money cannot buy everything,” and right he is.