In his essay “Stealth Authoritarianism”, Ozan Varol argues that leaders can maintain the facade of democratic values and institutions, while really backsliding towards authoritarianism. One deceptive method that Varol examines is electoral laws, specifically those that deal with campaign finance. Though he only mentions these laws in the context of curbing or preventing foreign influence in elections, campaign finance laws can also be used by elites to strategically shape electoral outcomes and garner power in the political system. Especially in recent years, many people have become critical of the campaign finance system in the U.S., claiming that the laws are undemocratic and unfairly favor certain actors.
Money has a long problematic history in U.S. politics. Before the introduction of more comprehensive laws in the 1970s, campaign finance was a relatively unregulated system that was rife with quid pro quo donations and corruption. Recent changes in these policies and norms, however, have created more oversight and involvement in the process. These, however democratically instituted changes, created loopholes, though, that have allowed groups to skirt the finance rules, and undermined the power of free of fair elections, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision ruled that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that corporations and unions were free to make unlimited expenditures on elections for public office as part of their First Amendment right. This ruling instigated a new—- now very commonplace— practice of elites creating their own 501(c)4 tax exempt corporations with designated nonprofit status and using them to donate exorbitant sums of money to campaigns. Through this designation, too, organizations do not have to disclose their donors’ identities. This practice nullifies that power of the FEC, and the Internal Revenue Code. These organizations have taken advantage of the law, and created a system where people can massively influence elections anonymously with unknown intentions. There was an attempt reform the system and make groups make available the names of the donors to these super powerful organizations, the 2010 DISCLOSE Act, which had 100% of Senate democrats vote for it, and 0 republicans. This party-line vote suggests that the system unfairly advantages one of the political parties in the U.S.
The actions that political actors use to finance campaigns is totally legal, but often has the are done with the purpose of gaining influence in the political system for personal gain. This manipulation of institutions, and undermining of a democratic cornerstone of fair elections, should be further examined as a possible symptom of backsliding.