The Threat of Independent Political Spending to Democratic Life — And a Plan to Stop It

25 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2018

See all articles by Bruce Ledewitz

Bruce Ledewitz

Duquesne University - School of Law

Date Written: 2016


Professor Lawrence Lessig has made a great contribution to American public life by drawing attention to the influence of money in politics through his writing, speaking, and organizing. His best-selling book, "Republic, Lost" has galvanized a movement demanding serious campaign finance reform. I agree with the broad outline of his concern about the dependence of Congress on wealthy individuals and entities and the political corruption that this pecuniary dependence entails.

So, it is with hesitation that I set out in this Article my reservations concerning Professor Lessig’s analysis of the problem of money. Money does not play quite the dominant role in our politics that he suggests. Money by itself does not select nominees or elect candidates or enact policy.

Moreover, Professor Lessig’s analysis overlooks the unique threat that independent political spending poses to American democracy. It is independent spending, rather than money in general, that threatens to undermine the nature of elections. Independent spending takes away debates and decisions from candidates and voters and empowers organizations that are, because of non-coordination requirements, independent and politically irresponsible. To deal with this immediate threat, I propose the elimination of all contribution limits to candidates for office, which would greatly inhibit independent spending. The Article opens in Part I with the legal history and current status of independent political spending. Then, in Part II, the Article shows how independent spending threatens democracy more fundamentally than does the influence of money in general. Part III outlines my plan to limit independent spending, which consists of the simple expedient of eliminating campaign contribution limits and addresses some of the concerns that arise from the resulting regime of unlimited direct campaign contributions. Finally, in Part IV, I return to Professor Lessig’s program of campaign finance reform and suggest that eliminating contribution limits would actually advance that program.

I consider this Article to be a mostly friendly amendment to the Lessig reform agenda. Nevertheless, that reform agenda is too diffuse. Without immediate attention to the specific threat of independent political spending, American democracy will continue to erode, whatever other reforms are enacted.

Keywords: Campaign Finance, Campaign Finance Reform, Democracy, Political Contributions, Independent Political Spending, Campaign Contribution Limits

Suggested Citation

Ledewitz, Bruce, The Threat of Independent Political Spending to Democratic Life — And a Plan to Stop It (2016). Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 64, 2016; Duquesne University School of Law Research Paper No. 2018-01. Available at SSRN:

Bruce Ledewitz (Contact Author)

Duquesne University - School of Law ( email )

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Pittsburgh, PA 15282
United States

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