Some degree of misbranding is ever-present in politics, but never has a label been more universally misused than when something is done in the name of “the people.” One can just look around the world and throughout history at all of the “People’s Republics” to see that the only people who benefited in those regimes were the ruling class. And so it is with the “People’s Pledge,” which was touted with much fanfare during the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race as a means of tamping down campaign spending by “outside” groups.
Scott Brown had barely formed an exploratory committee recently to run for the Senate again – this time in New Hampshire – when his potential opponent, incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, started demanding that he sign another pledge similar to the pact he made with now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren in their 2012 race. This time, Brown wisely demurred, and the people of the Granite State will be better off for it.
The “People’s Pledge” is supposed to limit the supposed scourge of third-party political advertising by threatening to punish the candidates when outside groups weigh in. For every dollar that an outside group spends supporting a candidate or attacking her opponent, the candidate who supposedly benefits must disgorge fifty cents of her own campaign funds to a charity. In theory, these punitive effects are supposed to deter groups from attempting to assist either candidate.
In practice, this is largely what happened in Massachusetts in 2012. While third-party groups were spending heavily on the race prior to the pact between Brown and Warren, their advertising quickly dried up after the pledge. Because the pledge covered only broadcast media ads, some groups switched over to other forms of media, such as direct mail and robocalls (which are arguably more intrusive to the public). Still, the pledge accomplished much of its goal, which was to limit the diversity of the public’s sources of information, and to hand the candidates a monopoly over the election debate, or, rather, an oligopoly, since the media was still free to speak with impunity when nobody else was.
The People’s Pledge not only deterred third parties from weighing in on the election, but it also had negative spillover effects into areas wholly unrelated to the election. One of the most notable “breaches” of the pact by an outside group in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race was a radio ad run by the American Petroleum Institute in seven states, asking citizens to contact their senators to oppose a bill pending in Congress that, in API’s view, would have raised gas prices. It was the type of issue advocacy endemic to a healthy democracy that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow under any other circumstances. Yet, because the ad named then-Senator Brown in an effort to have his constituents reach out to him, Brown was forced to forego $35,000 of campaign funds.
The American Petroleum Institute ad could just as easily have been a Sierra Club ad. Whether one’s motto is “drill baby drill” or “save the environment,” gimmicks like the People’s Pledge force public discussion of important policy issues to the sidelines when they happen to coincide with a campaign season (and they frequently do). While the pledge technically did not have the force of law in prohibiting any third parties from speaking out, it presented them with a Hobson’s Choice: Groups with no interest in an election could either advocate for their issues and be forced into impacting the election, or they could allow politics to take precedence over their policies by silencing themselves.
Elsewhere in the real world of the private sector, if two competing firms were to collude to establish the terms of their competition, they would be investigated by law enforcement officials for restraint of trade. Why should it be any different for politics? In a well-functioning democracy, politicians should be responsive to the people. The People’s Pledge, contrary to its name, allows politicians to ignore the people and respond only to each other.
Proponents of the pledge argue that it provides voters with a respite from too much politics. Yet, the “Live Free or Die” state, which practically invented the town hall meeting, fights fiercely for its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and has more representatives in its General Court than any other state legislature, clearly has a greater stomach for politics than its delicate neighbor Massachusetts. Should Scott Brown decide to formally run for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, he would do well to remember this, and to reject the People’s Pledge for what it is: a politicians’ pact to rig the rules for insiders.
Eric Wang is a political law attorney and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Competitive Politics. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his firm or his clients.