When it comes to politics, Heather Gerken believes Cyndi Lauper was right: Money changes everything.
Right now, the concern is how massive infusions of cash are changing the 2012 presidential race. Gerken, however, wonders about the longer term impact on political parties and the role rank-and-file partisans will play in the future.
Four years ago, Gerken was in Barack Obama’s inner circle and watched Election Day 2008 unfold from inside the campaign’s “boiler room” along with campaign staff, data-crunchers and lawyers.
Gerken is monitoring the 2012 campaign from the classroom at Yale Law School where she specializes in election law. Speaking at the University of Iowa College of Law Thursday, Gerken voiced a concern that the flow of money into super PACs and independent expenditure groups may sap the strength of political parties — the “energy behind democracy.”
In addition to what political scientists call the “hydraulics of finance,” Gerken said there also is a “hydraulics of power, hydraulics of political energy.” The flow of money is just the visible sign of where power is moving.
Her worry is political power will follow the money and political elites, rather than the rank-and-file party members will control the political process.
Parties, she explained, are the “forum where interest groups coalesce, battle things out and create the compromises that you vote for when you vote for a candidate,” she said. “Parties make governance possible.” Despite their faults, parties are the energy behind democracy.
It’s the party faithful who see issues, frame the issues, build new coalitions and reject the old ones, Gerken said. They also educate voters.
“They are an essential part of American democracy,” she said.
But if parties are held to strict contribution limits and disclosure standards, it’s likely money will continue to flow to the largely unregulated super PACs and independent groups.
That likely will diminish the role partisan hacks, which Gerken said is a “term of art, affection and respect,” will have on the politics and elections.
She called the partisan hacks the “great guarantor of American democracy … the people who really devote themselves to the cause.”
“They are what makes the party alive and that should matter to you if you even if you don’t care that much about politics,” she said.
It’s the party faithful, Gerken said, “Who hold the political elites accountable, make sure they toe the party line, and make sure the energy we put into our politics is well spent.”
Asked about public financing of campaign as an antidote, Gerken was not optimistic. In a time of tight budgets, she said voters are unlikely to let politicians “put money into their own politics to run better campaigns.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, which she believes rarely gets election law decisions right, appears “deeply skeptical” of public financing and lower courts seem to suggest it’s unconstitutional.