Boston University

Campaign Finance as Stealth Authoritarianism by Rachel Bennetts @ Boston University

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.


  1. Aidan Calvelli

    October 2, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    I agree that campaign donations are used to manipulate the democratic institution of elections. The proliferation of unregulated money in politics has increased wealthy donors’ control of access points into the political system, granting them outsized influence over the political process. The more that political influence is concentrated in the hands of a select group of people, the less democratic the US political system is (using a maximalist understanding of democracy (like Dahl’s) that incorporates citizens having a roughly equal ability to have their voice heard in government).

    However, it’s important to draw a distinction between actions that decrease democratic representativeness and actions that are authoritarian. To Varol, stealth authoritarianism happens when a political leader, with the goal of amassing power, uses democratic institutions to take anti-democratic actions. We must then make a distinction between the result and intention of an action to determine whether it is indicative of stealth authoritarianism.

    The example of Citizens United does not show stealth authoritarianism, since that decision was made by the judicial branch – not by an executive seeking to increase control. Though loosely regulated campaign financing grants more power to the wealthy, it does not deny leadership change. Wealthy donors are not a homogenous class – think Tom Steyer v. Sheldon Adelson – and these competing interests help ensure that power is not completely consolidated by one party or administration. Money in politics can be used by both the party in power and the opposition alike, so in allowing for leadership transition it cannot be seen as inherently authoritarian.

    There’s a slight difference between behavior that is anti-democratic and authoritarian. The case of US campaign finance involves a drift more toward oligarchy than authoritarianism, given that the consolidation of power happens with donors outside the political system, not those in charge of it.

  2. Emma Geesaman

    October 7, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    The role of money in elections has and will continue to be influential to political outcomes. The ability of corporations and big business to donate money has allowed these groups to exercise an unprecedented amount of power in comparison to elections occurring before the 2010 court ruling of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. As previously pointed out, putting an unequal amount of power in the hands of the elite can serve to undermine democracy by not having all citizens on an equal playing field, but this isn’t sufficient to conclude that stealth authoritarianism is on the rise in the United States.
    Numerous scholars such as Schumpeter and Diamond have stated that a key characteristic of democracy is the existence of free and fair elections. Under the definition given by Diamond in “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes”, campaign donations regardless of donor or amount do not undermine elections unless voters are being coerced when exercising electoral choices. The size of a campaign’s budget is an important factor in the outcome of elections; however, the use of ads, canvassing, and events are hardly coercive measures, but rather mobilization efforts. These strategies are used by both parties in the United States. In fact, in the 2016 election cycle the Democratic Party raised and spent more money than the Republican Party ( This suggests that there isn’t a clear partisan advantage. As a result, it is difficult to say that the ruling of Citizens United vs. FEC and the party-line vote in regards to the DISCLOSE Act was a direct attempt to do something undemocratic within the scope of democratic institutions.

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