Campaign finance reformers, politicians, and academics have been arguing for decades that democracy is imperiled by a threat that permeates all of politics: money. Money in politics, these elites tell us, is to blame for a wide array of ills in American society that threaten democracy: moneyed interests buying elections, rampant corruption, and declining trust in government. The elites are wrong, yet the American public believes them. This book is about why that matters. Specifically, the US Supreme Court’s justification for upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance laws rests on public attitudes toward government—namely, preventing “the appearance of corruption.” Using original survey data from the 2015 and 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Primo and Milyo show this is problematic because the public is misinformed about money in politics, its support for free speech is often driven by partisan or ideological considerations, and it “sees” corruption in the everyday activities of politicians. Moreover, using survey data spanning thirty years, Primo and Milyo show that state-level campaign finance reforms have no meaningful effect on trust and confidence in government, contrary to the claims of reformers but consistent with public skepticism about reform.
Keywords: corruption, public opinion, democracy, campaign finance, elections, interest groups