An increasingly common theme in reporting on campaign finance is to “expose” networks of organizations involved in political work. These articles – such as The New York Times’ “A National Strategy Funds State Political Monopolies” from January 11 and The Washington Post’s “The players in the Koch-backed $400 million political donor network” from January 5 – typically show how a number of different organizations have common donors, make contributions to one another, or otherwise interact in ways that affect political campaigns.
The purpose of pointing this out is not simply to educate readers on the mundane details of non-profit fundraising and outreach strategies, but to portray the connected groups as pawns in the grand political scheme of wealthy donors. You can see this assumption embedded right in the titles of both pieces mentioned above. The New York Times does not see a bunch of independent groups with connections to each other; they see “A National Strategy” at work. The Washington Post does not see many different groups who happen to have some overlapping donors; they see a “Koch-backed $400 million political donor network” working towards a unified goal.
It’s unfair to characterize groups that receive funding from similar sources as part of a network run by elite donors at the top. As Adam Gurri notes in an insightful article for The Ümlaut, influence is the product of complicated interactions between multiple variables, not simply a matter of finding the richest donor in the room. Gurri’s explanation of the Kochs’ political spending shows this interplay of variables at work:
“Third, and this is my perspective, you can see the Koch brothers as attempting to participate in a process where influence is opaque. You can’t identify a real nexus of influence or what its magnitude of influence is. Since you can’t, you spread your money pretty widely in the hope that by diversifying, you’ll have found at least one institution that has some actual sway on policy outcomes. But by doing that you also dilute your own share of control over any one of these institutions. As a result, there is a great deal of drift from their core beliefs and the principles espoused by any of the institutions in the Koch network.”
Gurri’s explanation for the activity of wealthy donors and political groups seems more reasonable than the conspiracy theory forwarded by The Times and The Post, but it isn’t as catchy. The media needs heroes and villains to make campaign finance stories tangible and important to readers, so when it can’t find them, it creates them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to mention a large sum of money getting larger, without any context, like The New York Times did when it wrote “From 2006 to 2010, the volume of campaign cash flowing from Beltway-based groups to state parties and candidates almost doubled, to $139 million from $79 million, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.” Presented by itself, that $79 million growing to $139 million looks like a ton of money, but with a little knowledge about election spending, our bogeyman isn’t so daunting. Consider that $7.3 billion was spent on federal races in 2012, according to the FEC. The $139 million going from beltway groups to state parties and candidates would have paid for just 1.9% of that spending.
Media coverage of campaign finance gives the readers what they want, and that’s a story about a small group of wealthy donors secretly manipulating politics to their personal advantage, not the more accurate story about a difficult-to-model relationship between multiple variables such as donor control, institutions’ sway over policy outcomes, and uncertainty which naturally produces complex networks of like-minded organizations whose actions cannot be fully understood.
It’s nice to imagine that the popular story is true and we can untangle the web of American politics by watching the richest players in the game, but that just isn’t the case. Disclosure can tell you who spent what, but it can’t tell you why. That’s one big reason why a world with increased disclosure might be less a supposed utopia of sunlight and more a shouting match over whose donors are worse.