Money enters politics in a number of ways. Some politicians use their position to enrich themselves; others prioritize raising funds for their reelection campaigns; yet other politicians leave their position to take up a "golden parachute" job and work for the very special interests they were regulating while in office. I argue that these different types of money in politics form an interdependent ecosystem and that politicians strategically solicit and use money in a way that advances their interests. This implies that self-enrichment, campaign spending, and golden parachute jobs are fungible in important ways. I argue that the legal and the electoral campaign environments jointly shape how money enters politics.
To empirically demonstrate the strategic choice between the different forms of money in politics, I use a two-pronged approach. First, I use detailed micro-level data from India, Brazil, and the United States to show that the legal and the electoral campaign environments explain how money enters politics within these countries. Second, I conduct a series of case studies to test my argument cross-nationally. Taken together, this allows me to provide a comprehensive empirical map of the different forms of money in politics.
Finally, I argue that the significance of my argument goes beyond simply knowing why and when money enters politics in different forms. Instead, it has implications for the way we ought to think about money in politics. Right now, the focus is overwhelmingly on how much of it there is. However, I show that whether money is used for self-enrichment, as campaign spending, or comes in the form of a golden parachute job has downstream consequences for the quality of democracy in a country. For example, it affects how voters perceive politicians and influences who wins elections. The normative consequences of money in politics thus do not simply follow from how much of it there is. Instead, they depend on how it enters and what this does to important aspects of democratic quality. We therefore need to have a different conversation about money in politics.