The evolutionary case for campaign finance reform.

Posted Jul 07, 2018

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Source: skeeze / pixabay

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better,” says expert political scientist, Andrew Therriault. While the research on this issue is somewhat complex, and while it looks like campaign funding is more predictive of victory for challengers rather than for incumbents, the bottom line of the research on this topic is pretty basic. In a democracy such as ours, candidates running for office who raise more money compared with their opponents are more likely to win elections.

As I’ll present in this post, this is a problem.

A large-scale conversation that is going on regarding American politics pertains to the role of money in politics. We like to think that the United States is a true democracy, but anyone who has looked closely at a high-level election might beg to differ. Candidates running for Congress, for instance, are told by the national Democratic and Republican Committees that they will need to raise well over a million dollars to have a chance at winning a seat in the House of Representatives.

In theory, I suppose, anyone can raise $1,000,000+ dollars. In actuality, we all know that a very small percentage of Americans are in a position to do so.

To raise that kind of money for a campaign, you pretty much need to do the following:

  • Quit your day job for about a year and campaign 24/7
  • Have a lot of rich friends
  • Have a lot of rich family members
  • Spend at least as much time focusing on raising money as on researching the issues related to the position that you are seeking
  • Know a lot of people with Ivy League degrees

At the end of the day, in reality, only a small percentage of Americans can truly pull off what is needed to viably run for a national-level office. And if this sentiment sounds Unamerican to you, then know that I agree. The idea of only a small percentage of Americans being able to achieve the highest level of political office is, in fact, quite Unamerican.

This fact that only a small percentage of Americans are positioned in a way to even be able to run a viable campaign is actually not the only problem that follows from our system for electing officials into our government.

A primary part of running an effective campaign is raising money from donors. And, of course, donors always have their own unique interests. An individual donor has his or her own political values and is hoping that the candidate will push for those particular values. A corporate donor has its own particular interests, based on the nature of the industry that the corporation is in, and, thus, a corporation has certain political outcomes that it stands to gain from. An organization (such as the National Rifle Association) that donates to a campaign has yet its own goals and political interests. As such, an organization generally will donate only to candidates who can be expected to push legislation consistent with the goals of said organization.

For reasons demarcated below, this is a terrible system. And it undermines every single facet of our democracy.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Beholden

Being beholden essentially corresponds to owing someone something because that someone has helped you in the past. Often, the term beholden connotes owing someone else so much as to be, to some extent, under the control of that other.

If you are an elected official, it is not cool to say “Yes, I am beholden. It’s true!"

At 48 years old, I have yet to hear an elected official admit to being beholden to an individual donor, a corporate donor, or an organizational donor. It just doesn’t happen. Admitting to being beholden is, in effect, synonymous with admitting to having no principles. And that is not exactly what people want in a leader.

In any case, once you think about elected officials as humans who are, as part of the political process, engaging in social interactions with other humans based on evolved psychological processes that typify our species, our entire electoral process starts to look rather suspect.  

As Trivers (1971) famously pointed out, reciprocal altruism is a major feature of human evolved psychology. Humans evolved in conditions under which we interact with the same individuals over and over across decades. Such an ecological scenario is fertile ground for the evolution of reciprocal altruism — the tendency for people to help others in mutually beneficial ways. And, in fact, this aspect of human social interactions has shaped myriad features of our social psychology. We are a reciprocally altruistic ape at our core — we are descended from ancestors who helped others who had helped them in past interactions (see Geher, 2014).

So in our everyday social interactions, we implicitly expect people to help others who have helped them in the past. If you need a hand with something, you might turn to a neighbor whom you have helped in the recent past. When someone goes out of his or her way to help you with something, you might shower that person with words of appreciation (You are a lifesaver! I cannot thank you enough!). When someone helps you with something really important, you may well explicitly discuss reciprocation (I owe you big time! I will totally get you back!). And so forth.

In our everyday lives, we fully embrace reciprocal altruism as simply the way things are. And this makes sense, as it is a deep part of our evolutionary heritage (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992).

Given how deep reciprocal altruism runs in our species, this whole idea of an elected official as not being beholden actually starts to look a little silly. Of course elected officials are beholdenthey virtually all are!

Draining the Swamp Means Changing the System

Look, to some extent, virtually all of our elected officials are beholden to someone or another. They simply could not become elected officials otherwise—this is the nature of the system.

We often disparage elected officials, pointing out how they are beholden to some wealthy individual or to some corporate interests or to some lobbying groups, etc. But you know, based on this idea of being beholden as being rooted in our evolved psychology of reciprocal altruism, the problem is not really about the elected officials themselves (no matter how much it might seem that way). The problem really is that our current system for elections in the United States is broken. It is a system that does not take into account the fact that human beings are apes that evolved with reciprocal altruism, and all that comes with it, as foundational features of who we are.

Red or Blue or Green. Democrat or Republican. Libertarian or Socialist. Or whatever. If you think that we need to drain the swamp, I say that focusing on corrupt individuals is not the way to go. The system that we have, for so many reasons, facilitates corruption. Corrupt politicians are, at the end of the day, largely the result of a broken system. From an evolutionary perspective, the problem is that our electoral system fails to appreciate our evolved nature. Our current system fails to show any understanding of how important reciprocal altruism is when it comes to what it means to be human. If we want to fix this problem, we need to fix the system!

Bottom Line: Campaign Finance Reform is Foundational

There are many problems in the US today. I mean this in a non-partisan manner. In a true democracy, anyone should be able to have a viable chance at running for office. In the US today, only a small percentage of people are privileged enough to be able to practically run for high-level offices. Perhaps just as bad, if not worse, our system for elections, which requires candidates to raise extraordinary amounts of money, necessarily makes any candidate beholden to all kinds of individuals and organizations. From an evolutionary perspective, this is a really bad system—it fails to appreciate how basic reciprocal altruism is to the human condition.

Want to drain the swamp? Want to level the playing field? I say that you start thinking about campaign finance as perhaps the most important issue in politics today. Until the current system changes dramatically, we will be hard-pressed to live in a true democracy.

Here is to advancing true democracy. Here is to our shared future.


Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.