Julius Caesar, who brought the republic to an end, walked a path to power paved by charisma and military accomplishments—and his mastery of Roman campaign-finance practices. He won his first election to Rome’s highest office with the backing of a single wealthy donor (who, in exchange, planned to serve beside Caesar). And if there was a moment when civil war between Caesar and the conservative Roman Senate became inevitable, it was probably the day Caesar paid off the debts of Gaius Scribonius Curio. Curio, an up-and-coming conservative, had won election as a tribune of the people, and with it the tribune’s power to veto any law. But he had heavily indebted himself along the way. Caesar satisfied his creditors, but only on the condition that Curio switch sides. From that point, Caesar, who already had an army, owned a veto in the Roman government. Political deadlock was assured.
Caesar’s fiercest personal enemy was also Rome’s most consistent enemy of electoral corruption. Marcus Porcius Cato, a Stoic and Senate conservative, made his name denouncing the influence of money on private and public life. Yet Cato failed, just as other would-be reformers did. He obsessively cast corruption as a failing of personal morality rather than a systemic crisis, which dramatically understated both the scope of the problem and the means needed to control it. As a result, Cato’s proposed remedies were usually ad hoc, and they predictably fell short.
In one instance, he managed to persuade a group of candidates to appoint him as an informal election judge, with the power to investigate bribery and publicly expose any candidate he found guilty. Each pledged to forfeit money to Cato if he was caught breaking the deal. Days before the vote, an enthusiastic Cicero wrote, “If the election proves free, as it is thought it will, Cato alone can do more than all the laws and all the judges.”
On the day of the election, Cato stood before the Roman people and duly announced that one of the candidates had cheated. The rivals huddled and came to their own decision: The guilty man should be let off with no further penalty, and he should keep his money. That’s how deep corruption ran in the culture of the Roman elite.
Even as ambitus weakened the republic, each member of the governing class preferred a strategy of maximizing his own gains in a broken system. Vote-buying made sense for individual politicians at the same time as it undermined the elite as a whole. Cicero, for instance, passed a strong anti-corruption law and even named it after himself—and then, he secured the acquittal of the very first man charged under the law because he was a political ally.
Several years later, an ex-governor was tried for extorting money from his province to finance a campaign for higher office. Six different lawyers, drawn from the cream of the Senate—the equivalent of a Roman legal Dream Team—rose to defend him. The corrupt former official was acquitted with ease.
By the end, chronic election-buying had helped grind down all faith in republican government. Why was Caesar able to dissolve the republic and set Rome on a course to one-man rule? Because, in large part, enough people believed that the republic was too rotten to be worth saving. And while most classical sources dwell on the aristocracy, there’s also strong evidence that ordinary Romans grew increasingly alienated from politics during the final years. Radical leaders like Catiline and Clodius drew massive followings with their attacks on a corrupt elite; their riots, in turn, helped convince much of that elite that Rome was in grave need of a strongman.
Unlimited money in politics certainly doesn’t guarantee riots and civil war. Nor does “the appearance of influence” always undermine republican government. But legitimacy matters, and it rests on a delicate understanding: the belief that those who govern have a right to govern. It’s devilishly hard to measure or quantify, but (to paraphrase the Supreme Court again) we know it when we see it.
How much democratic faith do Americans have today? How many liberals think George W. Bush won in 2004 because of electronic voting shenanigans in Ohio? How many conservatives think Barack Obama won in 2008 thanks to ACORN, or in 2012 because of handouts to the 47 percent? Unlimited money in politics adds one more cause for doubt, perhaps the most powerful of all, to a list that has grown in recent years. How long until we have a presidential election in which a dangerous percentage of Americans view the final result as illegitimate on account of money?
On some level, Citizens United was right. It’s not bought influence that’s deadliest to our politics—it’s the appearance of influence. We can debate dueling First Amendment readings and the real power of super PACs all we’d like; but here is a case where public opinion, on its own, should be decisive. If a loss of faith becomes wide and deep enough, the question of whether or not we are right to lose faith becomes academic. The loss is destructive either way. Just ask Rome.