Levelling up rather than levelling down — a fresh approach for tackling big money in politics?

Dieter Zinnbauer
19 min readApr 27, 2018
Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden

Too much money in politics is a big problem. Disproportionate influence on policies and regulations by a small cabal of the wealthy, connected and organized at the expense of the broader public is a perennial concern for good governance folks around the world. The intuitive response to these concerns and the focus of most policy advocacy is usually to try to level down: restore more balance to the political process by curtailing the outsize influence of big money through various caps, limits, restrictive rules that seek to deter through transparency and reduce/contain the most egregious, manipulative or disproportionate strategies for influencing. This conventional toolbox for tackling policy capture contains widgets such as caps on political donations, cooling-off periods for operatives moving between private and public office, limits for gifts and donations that can be accepted by public officials and political office-holders, careful control of physical access to the halls of power etc. etc. All these interventions are aimed at checking and reducing outsize influence of the few. They are designed to restore the level playing field by levelling down.

Trouble ahead for levelling down

Such efforts to level down are extremely important. Yet, they have run into three major problems lately:

  • they face a continuous catch-up challenge, since they invite work-arounds, the exploitation of loopholes and a continuous drive towards subtler ways of influencing that are not covered by regulations yet. From third-party resource bundlers to science capture, from astroturfing to micro-targeting undisclosed political ads, regulations that level down are forever lagging behind rapidly evolving influencing tactics;
  • enforcement is typically inadequate. Even when rules match influencing practice, policing all these caps, regulations and transparency requirements is tricky. Yet in most countries neither the required resources nor adequate enforcement architectures are in place to make levelling down effective practice. One-third of disclosure filings by lobbyists in the US are considered defective, while some eastern European countries, for example, have introduced some of the most aggressive laws and regulations around, yet rank among the countries rated to be most affected by undue influencing and state/policy capture.
  • expansive interpretations for freedom of expression or privacy and narrowing notions of corruption pose an increasingly thorny challenge. Levelling down at the end of the day it is about curtailing someone’s political engagement and although this is done for very good reasons it is increasingly construed as violating basic principles of freedom of speech or as unduly criminalizing perfectly normal day-to-day practices of politicking. As sinister as these lines of reasoning may at times be and as much as they may be compellingly trumped by the public interest in the democratic integrity and inclusiveness of our polity it is hard to deny that they are currently gaining considerable buy-in at highest judicial level as the recent decisions by the US Supreme Court on Citizen United and McDonnell have sadly demonstrated. Such freedom of expression issues are likely to come even more into focus with subtler forms of influencing at the research, science and public opinion level gaining momentum. And the legal discussion in the US is in my view not a case of exceptionalism but a harbinger for where lobbying practices and the related legal conversation will be heading towards in many other countries.

Something else out there?

So what else could be done that complements these important, yet insufficient measures? Well, if the potential of levelling down has been maxed out how about thinking about the opposite? How about ways to level up that boost the influence of the marginalised and under-represented and that strengthen the independence of policy-makers and regulators?

Nothing new, but perhaps currently a bit overlooked

This idea is as simple as it is old. It actually predates the current focus on levelling down. Making democratic processes more accessible and inclusive, giving marginalized interest or independent expert views voice and salience in the public debate, mobilizing and organizing grass-roots to more effectively engage in the democratic game have long been ambitions in media policy, community empowerment, civic education projects, voter mobilization etc. etc. Yet, these strategies seem to have gone a bit out of fashion, side-lined by a focus on levelling down.

Swing it backwards towards levelling up — examples, gaps, ideas

So time to bring levelling up back in and exploring creative ways of harnessing it as a complementary strategy to stem the influence of outsized money in politics. Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School has most prominently advocated for such a revitalisation of levelling up in 2011 already, followed by Richard Hasen and others. Building and expanding on these proposals here are nine examples of how a levelling up perspective can enrich research, policy and advocacy to counter asymmetric influence.

  1. Expanding ideational space beyond economic and political orthodoxies — to give more visibility and intellectual clout to a broader range of ideas and templates for responding to the fundamental challenges of our times;
  2. Diversifying representation — to boost underrepresented identities and interests starting with the much needed research to actually understand which dimensions matter most and what the patterns of under-representations actually look like;
  3. Strengthening independent analytical and informational capabilities of policy-makers to reduce reliance on lobbyists;
  4. Amplifying grass-roots support to political candidates and campaigns to make candidates and official holders more receptive to their constituencies rather than to outside wealthy donors;
  5. Introducing a diversity-premium in public funding for political parties;
  6. Boosting grass-roots lobbying skills and engagement with complex political processes such as lobbying at the European Union level;
  7. Building citizen-centric mechanisms that are harder to co-opt into decision-making architectures;
  8. Updating laws and regulations to promote grass-roots collective organizing as countervailing force to powerful political interests; and,
  9. Hardwiring public interest advocacy more effectively into government through more use and better design of ombuds- and public defendor functions.

These ideas are very different in nature and seek to balance influence in very different stages of the policy-making process, moving from the very basic realm of frames, ideas and imagination that bound and filter the very pool of ideas and proposals on which policy-making can draw (1) to the essential mechanics of political representation and finance (2,4, 6) and on to the very practical mechanisms of how information and influence in policy design is organised and exercised (3,5). I will elaborate a bit more on each of these nine ideas in the following sections.

1. Expanding the idea space

Remember the most recent financial crisis and the way we sought to deal with it? Reckless financial gimmickry had created fabulous riches for the few, took the world economy to the brink of collapse in 2007/8 and left taxpayers with shouldering most of the bail-out bill, the aftermath of which we still suffer from. The main focus of the political/institutional dimension of the subsequent reform efforts: curb undue influence and break cosy relations between business and government, a classic case of levelling down. Yet, one person took a somewhat different direction and diagnosed a dearth of viable economic policy ideas that would be able to challenge the dominant market orthodoxy and propose alternative templates for a more sustainable and more just financial architectures as one of the root causes of the crisis. To counter this ideational capture of policy-making George Soros helped establish the Institute for New Economic Thinking. The institute is founded on the ambition to bring new scholars, new ideas into the economic and political mainstream. It seeks to break free from the industry-friendly group-think and dogmatic, yet often tenuous scholarly truths that — often subtly or not so subtly encouraged by the financial industry — have set the narrow epistemic bounds for what constitutes acceptable policy-making in this area. This is a neat example of levelling-up: generating reputable scholarly firepower, fresh ideas, evidence and sound analysis and helping this body of work to get salience in the public discourse. A similar idea of nurturing new evidence and ideas from the South and helping them gain traction in policy-making has underpinned the Think Tank Initiative supported by a donor collective that however is bound to wrap up in 2019. One can only hope that more such initiatives are being put in place to help level up the ideational landscape in a number of critical policy fields.

2. Revisiting, surfacing and diversifying patterns of representation

Can we really expect fair rules and protections for families that rent their house when essentially all parliamentarians are homeowners and the percentage of landlords in parliament is almost 20% as compared to less than 3% in the general population as is the case in the UK? Can polities in which the median law-maker is a millionaire (and key positions in the executives are held by billionaires) be entrusted with devising good inheritance or really effective progressive income or wealth tax policies — as is the case in the US? Can garment worker protections spring from a parliament where 10 percent of the sitting members directly own these very sweatshops (not to mention many more who hold indirect interests in the industry) — as is the case in Bangladesh? Can male dominated councils make good parental policies? Can pro-labour policies be expected from a predominantly white collar legislature? The latter two questions have actually been empirically investigated for Norway and the US respectively and the answer suggested in both cases is basically no.

Once we look at the policy-making process from the perspective of representation and inclusiveness old and new chasms of influence and interest become very visible. This is not to embrace a crude notion of some dark-force conspiracy of a cabal of millionaires or a simplistic premise that interests directly derive from descriptive identities, such as gender or a specific professional background. But there is fascinating research in social psychology that descriptive representation matters. Even the most well-intentioned, altruistic and open individual cannot fully escape the cognitive and emotional trappings of one’s identity and experiential backdrop. A worldview that is more likely to be familiar and rooted in a similar biography, a shared epistemic comfort zone of what rings true and how facts are established, the ease of relating to and being able to converse with the familiar all work towards situations in which one is more receptive to arguments and interests closer to one’s own existence. Revisiting descriptive representation is thus an urgent task when thinking about those subtle mechanisms of epistemic or social proximity that are at the root of the most systemic and structural types of policy capture. Yet apart from gender, at times ethnicity and more rarely age we neither have the data nor even figured out the right empirical categories to surface and track important dimensions of skewed representation in our parliaments. This is an important research gap. Identifying significant and consequential chasms in representation is a first step on the way towards devising effective strategies for levelling up at this most fundamental level of interest representation. This is not to suggest a naïve, unworkable shortcut to overcome entrenched structural power relations in many developing countries, yet it can offer a route towards more equal interest articulation in countries where political competition in principle could foster more pluralism. Once we have found such troublesome mono-cultures of over-representation — be it millionaires, land-owners or lawyers we are in a much better position to design targeted mobilisation efforts to level up — from outreach / recruitment of under-represented candidates to support for campaigns or capacity building to a new sensitivity about how members for important committees are being selected. In addition, the empirics of mono-representation provide useful arguments for individual candidates that represent marginal interests (think for example a candidate emphasizing that she is a renter and understands the worries of the renting population much better than the overwhelming majority of homeowners and landlords in parliament.

3. Boosting independent evidence and its impact

Professional lobbying is often understood to be at its most effective when providing policy-makers with expert-infused information right when and where it is needed in the policy-making process, from compelling problem framings or stakeholder testimonials to empirical evidence and even fully-fledged, ready to copy-and-paste texts to insert into bills. Given staffing constraints and the highly complex and expert knowledge intensive nature of contemporary policy issues law-makers all but rely on this often called “legislative subsidy” of lobbyist-provided information when seeking to input into fast-moving, quickly overwhelming policy processes. As recent empirical studies show this dependence on lobbyists’ prefab templates has reached epic proportions. At US state level, for example, more than 10,000 bills introduced by law-makers were largely copied from model legislation drafted by lobbyists.

Yet, as Heather Gerken has first proposed for the US context and La Pira et al. have more recently highlighted in their stock-take of congressional capacity, there are tried and tested mechanisms out there that could help lessen this dependence on interest-infused information. Many parliaments maintain research units, such as the US Congressional Research Service or for the Wissenschaftlicher Dienst for the federal parliament in Germany. Law-makers can draw on these services for independent expert analysis or scoping studies. Staffed with experts such fairly independent research services are quite popular across the aisle yet are usually very low-profile, quietly work in the background and produce lengthy reports on longish turn-around times with their institutional role in the democratic process barely recognised. From a levelling-up perspective however they could form the nucleus of a set of mechanisms that could potentially play a pivotal role in severing the day-to-day addiction to lobbyist-provided information. From this perspective it appears eminently worthwhile to explore how these services could be redesigned to produce independent analysis in more agile, application-friendly ways so that they can boost the information capabilities of policy-makers also during fast-moving, complex drafting processes. Levelling up and filling knowledge voids that translate into outsize influence for professional lobbyists at the neuralgic stage of drafting rules and regulations could also be approached by endowing policy-makers with sizeable information budgets. These resources could be used for paying staffers better and thus for building and retaining stronger expert capabilities or for sourcing-in independent research perhaps from a pool of certified independent service providers.

4. Leveraging small donations in political finance

Stemming the tide of money that flows into politics and reducing the outsize funding and influence of a small group of wealthy donors is perhaps the area of policy capture that is receiving most attention. Unfortunately, it is also here where the limits of levelling down are most evident, with ever more ingenious strategies deployed to circumvent rules, and related curbs and bans running increasingly into trouble with freedom of speech rights.

The funding landscape is so skewed towards big donors that levelling up cannot offer to create real symmetry. Nevertheless, there are several extremely interesting ideas on the table for giving more clout to small donors that have the potential to induce office holders and candidates to refocus their attention on and ultimately responsiveness to the local communities they serve, rather than what are often big outside donors.

Matching or over-matching grass-roots donations with public funds for example has been introduced for local elections in several places already. The idea is that this will help amplify the influence of small donations and provide additional incentives to candidates to pay more attention to these less powerful interests. New York City, for example matches small donations at the remarkable ratio of six-to-one with public funds.[1] Partly as a result more than seven times as many New York residents contribute to local election campaigns than to state level races that lack such matching mechanisms[2] and the number of small donors has significantly increased even though voter turnout had dropped somewhat during the same period.[3] Matching small donations with public money is also already in operation at national level in Germany where individual donations to political parties below EUR 3,000 are topped up at a multiple of 0.45 with public money.

Such mechanisms however might under certain circumstance still favour the already politically engaged and perhaps more zealous and polarized constituents of the grass roots spectrum.

A more fundamental approach for levelling up has therefore revolved around the idea of democracy dollars, essentially giving eligible voters a small budget to spend on candidates of their choice. This proposal popularized by prominent experts such as Bruce Ackerman as early as 2004 or more recently Larry Lessig does not only augment existing grass-roots engagement but seeks to reinvigorate a sense of agency, political efficacy and engagement across a broader swath of the electorate. This sense of empowerment is hoped to also extend to segments of non-voters that until now have felt disenfranchised or could not afford to make small out-of-pocket donations in the first place.

Seattle, for example, has forged ahead with this idea and introduced Democracy Vouchers for the 2017 municipal elections, essentially giving citizens a budget of 4 vouchers at 25 USD a piece funded through property taxes and to be spent in support of candidates that have signed up to certain funding and spending limitations. The results are encouraging: voucher users were found to be less likely to be high-income and more likely to come from poorer neighborhoods, suggesting a boost to underrepresented voter participation .

Seattle Democracy Vouchers 2017; Image by DarjeelingTea — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54799299

5. A diversity bonus or (mono-culture mallus) in public party finance

Parties play a very important role in converting political participation into political representation. Diversity in the pool of candidates running for public office stands and falls with the degree of diversity that parties and their outreach-to-candidate funnel actively encourage. Mandating a certain degree of diversity in party organs and party candidates might be one option to support a more inclusive approach, yet might run into constitutional troubles, such as in Germany where party autonomy is held in high regard. Yet, how about making more intra-party diversity pay? How about linking specific diversity targets (e.g. with regard to gender, indigenous communities etc.) to penalties or bonuses when public contributions to parties are being calculated? France has introduced such rules in the form of gender-targeting of public funding for political parties in 2000 and has seen the share of female candidates and parliamentarians increase significantly.

6. Helping grass-roots lobbying become more effective

Efforts to level up could also focus on helping grass-roots interests to make their advocacy more effective. At first sight this appears to be well underway. A myriad of capacity building initiative help NGOs or community groups around the world to up every aspect of their advocacy game, from tactical data collection and analysis to more effective data visualisation, storytelling or social media deployment to all the necessary back-office capabilities of project management, advocacy planning, digital security etc.

Nevertheless, there still seems to be ample space for creative initiatives that help grass-roots group engage with particularly complex policy-making processes and more generally learn from and even harness the experience of a lobbying industry that has become increasingly more professionalised and sophisticated over the last decades. Mirroring ideas in the campaign funding area one mechanism that has been put forward by Archon Fung of the Harvard Kennedy School is to give small lobbing budgets to citizens that can be pooled and enable grass-roots networks to contract in professional lobbying support. In Germany a crowd-funding start-up has sought to raise money for buying professional lobbying power in the service of grass-roots proposed policy ideas, although with limited success. An initiative directed at EU level lobbying seeks to pair NGOs with media or public relations professionals that are keen on putting their expertise pro-bono to work for public interest causes. The Good Lobby project launched by Alberto Alemanno seeks to foster this type of match-making. His initiative seeks to give NGOs a leg-up in how to navigate and work effectively with the policy-making process at European Union level, an arena notorious for its complicated thicket of intertwined institutions and committees that all but seasoned lobbyists and the most professional civil society groups seem to be able to belabour effectively. And this inspiring idea could be adopted for other contexts. Match-making between civil society groups and experienced issue experts could be envisioned for what some call thin political markets. These are highly specialised, yet consequential policy areas, where technical complexity and arcane issue matters all but shut out meaningful representation of the public interest vis-à-vis a highly organised, knowledgeable collective of special interests. Think accounting reforms or financial market regulation. Here more technical expertise available to public interest or consumer groups would be badly needed. It is indispensable for developing some meaningful counterweight to industry interests that are largely in sync with each other and are not substantively challenged by other well-organised business stakeholders that would take opposing views and make balanced outcomes more likely.

7. Building hard-to-co-opt “plain-citizen” mechanisms into decision making architectures

If some influential think tanks (the UK’s RSA) and policy outfits (e.g. the OECD) are to believed, we are in the midst of riding a “deliberative wave”. This refers to the increasing popularity and proliferation of deliberative mechanisms that engage citizens — in structured formats that promote informed, inclusive reasoning — to develop collective perspectives and policy recommendations for important policy issues. These deliberative mini-publics come in many forms and shapes and evidence suggests that they do have a real potential to live up to their promise to forge compromise, deliver balanced, practical recommendations and help shore up legitimacy for policy processes [4]. Their beauty is that they are difficult to hijack by special interests as participants are selected randomly to arrive at a roughly representative sample of the public. The challenge is to integrate these mini-publics into the policy-making process in meaningful ways so that there outputs actually do need to be considered by decision-makers and that follow-ups can be transparently monitored. If this is the case, they can serve as a bit of a counterweight to special influencing, helping to level up citizen voice in decision-making.

8. Nurturing countervailing grass-roots organizing through legal reform

Which is the most frequently referenced justiciable economic or social right in national constitutions? The right to health? To education? No, it is actually the right to form a labour union recognized by 80% of constitutions around the world and rated as in principle justiciable for more than 60% [5]. This resounding recognition that organized labour is an indispensable counterweight to big capital and key to achieving more equitable economic outcomes had somewhat faded into the background for some time. Yet, the idea is on the up again and it begins to gain broader purchase beyond labour: helping weaker, dispersed economic actors — from debtors and renters to individuals whose personal data is being hoovered up by tech platforms — organize and build an effective collective voice is increasingly viewed as an essential step for building countervailing bargaining power en route to more economic as well as political equality. Most interestingly, there is an important legal dimension to this. Laws and regulations can support this grass roots organizing and building of collective voice in several ways. As Andrias and Sachs (2021) [6] suggest this can range from explicitly granting collective rights and rights to bargain to provisions that enable access to crucial information and organizational resources and that protect against retaliation. Efforts across Europe to make class action lawsuits easier point into a similar direction by seeking to strengthen citizen power. Revisiting and expanding this panoply of legal measures to aide mass-organizing is urgent, given that this agenda has languished or even been actively dismantled in many countries over the last decades. Promoting collective voice through legal measures and not only for workers, but also for renters, debtors, consumers, data “subjects” and other dispersed and at individual level woefully outgunned interests is thus a promising contribution to levelling up.

9. Design public interest advocacy into government agencies and processes

There is a rich, inspiring history of how more robust advocacy for the public interest can be built directly into the very policy processes and policy domains that are particularly vulnerable to capture by special interests. Ombuds functions — institutionally baked into government to protect citizens’ rights and interests — have a long tradition, dating back to the early 1800s when Sweden established a first such organ. Since then they have steadily grown in number and spread across the world, proliferating in form and function and by now part of government architectures in most countries around the world. Examples: in some countries such as Germany consumer associations are accorded an official, privileged role in advancing public interest through research, advocacy and representation. Privacy commissioners throughout Europe are part and parcel of efforts to stem the worst outgrowths of surveillance states and surveillance tech. Anti-corruption agencies all around the world are put to work to protect public funds from being stolen. Independent commissions are helping citizens to assert access to information rights when government agencies drag their feet. In short, ombuds- and public defender functions are part and parcel of government already. They are certainly not a magic bullet for levelling up and face substantial risks of being sidelined, used as a fig-leaf or even being fully co-opted. Yet a focus on how to boost the independence and efficacy of these organs and how to build more such functions — perhaps along the lines of a “regulatory public defender” into more policy fields, ministries and agencies and more directly into earlier stages of the policy-making process is worthwhile. It could make a sensible complementary contribution to more direct forms of representation and participation, particularly on policy issues that are highly technical or affect widely dispersed interests and where effectively involving the broader public is therefore extremely difficult.

Back to the bigger picture

These are just some quick examples that illustrate what types of ideas and approaches a perspective of levelling up helps generate and/or bring back into focus.

Needless to say that levelling up is not a magic bullet to fix money in politics, nor is it in any way more important than the indispensable efforts to regulate outsize influence, cap the excesses of disproportionate spending and establish enforceable normative guard rails for acceptable lobbying. Yet, levelling up offers a highly complementary perspective. It directs attention to gaps in research that can help surface fundamental structures of asymmetric influencing such as the disparities in descriptive representation. It points to useful widgets and mechanisms a bit overlooked or under-used such as nurturing alternative policy models/ ideas or boosting collective action capabilities of marginalised groups. Deployed successfully it also offers the prospect of raising the trustworthiness of important political institutions a purpose more compelling and defensible in some jurisdictions where courts are skeptical about engineering fairness. And, perhaps most importantly, it helps generate fresh ideas and stoke experimentation -from amplifying grassroots campaign contributions or boosting independent research services to lessen dependence on lobbyists all the way to envisioning novel match-making modes to tap into the expertise of these very lobbyists for the common good.

Momentum for levelling up is building on several fronts. The Sustainable Development Goals have set a grand ambition for “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels (target 16.7) providing an impetus to re-visiting asymmetries in representation, while civic tech outfits such as My Society’s Every Politician initiatives are beginning to set up the architectures to collect and analyse related information. Cities are surging ahead with innovative approaches to levelling up. Seattle, for example, has begun to dismantle ossified participatory structures that favoured white, affluent homeowners and is now actively seeking to engage a broader spectrum of city dwellers in its consultations, including renters and ethnic minority residents. Likewise, city-level forays into matching or over-matching grass roots donations are being closely watched elsewhere and have already inspired similar legislative proposals at US federal level. Hopefully this energy around levelling up in some places and on some issue areas will spills over into other places and to other available levers. The time is certainly right for levelling up— let’s go experiment!

[1] For an in-depth examination of the NYC experience see Migally, A., & Liss, S. M. (2010). Small Donor Matching Funds: The NYC Election Experience. Brennan Center for Justice.

[2] Overton, S. (2011). Matching Political Contributions. Minn. L. Rev., 96, 1694.

[3] Common Cause. Invigorating Democracy: A Case for Small-Donor Matching. November 02, 2015. http://www.commoncause.org/states/illinois/press/press-releases/invigorating-democracy-a.html

[4] Farrell, D., & Stone, P. (2019). Sortition and Mini-Publics: A Different Kind of Representation. Handbook of Political Representation.

[5] Jung, C., Hirschl, R., & Rosevear, E. (2014). Economic and social rights in national constitutions. The American Journal of Comparative Law, 62(4), 1043–1094.

[6] Andrias, K., & Sachs, B. I. (2021). Constructing Countervailing Power: Law and Organizing in an Era of Political Inequality. Yale Law Journal, 130(3)

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Dieter Zinnbauer

governance, innovation, justice, tech and cities — copenhagen business school — views all mine