And I Had High Hopes….

When Barack Obama raised zillions of dollars from millions of small-dollar donors, I was ecstatic. It seemed to me that his success in online fundraising–fulfilling the promise of earlier efforts by Howard Dean and John McCain–would counter the outsized influence of big money donors.

After all, no public official was going to feel indebted to someone who’d sent in $20 dollars-or even $200. Campaigns would be funded by small-dollar gifts sent by regular, mostly non-ideological voters who’d decided they liked Candidate A.

How naive I was….

A guest essay in the New York Times took a look at the current, ugly status of online fundraising. Not that it will come as a shock to anyone who sent $3 or $5 dollars to a candidate only to have their inbox subsequently buried in hysterical, overwrought and frequently inaccurate appeals for money–contributions that would be matched or doubled and would allow Candidate Y to meet the onslaught of scurrilous attacks from Opponent Z.

The overwhelmingly positive narrative about the power of small-dollar online fund-raising began to congeal: Grass-roots fund-raising is pure and good. Big-dollar donations from corporate cronies are suspect. This is what democracy looks like!!!

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. It turns out that Americans don’t just vote for certifiable nutcases and nice but clearly unelectable candidates–they also send them money.

As it turned out, grass-roots fund-raising is also what ending democracy looks like. As with any other mass movement, people-powered campaigns followed the standard Hofferian trajectory: beginning as a cause, turning into a business and becoming a racket. Our online fund-raising system is not only enriching scam artists, clogging our inboxes and inflaming the electorate; it is also empowering our politics’ most nefarious actors.

It is how Donald Trump and his cast of clueless coupsters raised nine figures to “stop the steal” that they had fabricated to try to stay in power. It is one way our most extreme candidates dominate the conversation and gain power in our political system. It has redirected money from politicians who work to find compromises that might just help people, diverting it instead to those who either have no chance to win or, worse yet, can win and want to undermine that work for their own ends. And it’s hard to imagine how we can stop it.

The author pointed to an example “of the hellscape to come.”  Remember when South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during an  address to a joint session of Congress?  After the Democratic-controlled Congress censured him, Mr. Wilson’s campaign team used that incivility to fundraise. The campaign “uploaded fund-raising pleas to YouTube” and bought ad space on The Drudge Report.

In just 12 days he collected more money than he’d spent during his entire previous campaign.

The lesson wasn’t lost on those who raise money for campaigns.They could raise money and gain influence without bothering to build relationships and coalitions in Washington and back home. They could bypass all that by “being jerks on the internet and calling out their voters’ enemy du jour in the most ostentatious manner they could summon.” (Josh Hawley raised $3 million after he was pictured giving a salute to the rioters about to storm the Capitol.)

It’s created a perverse incentive structure, empowering the congressional shock jocks at the expense of actual legislators. Meanwhile, a series of court decisions supercharged political fund-raising generally. The new no-limits era allowed big donors to maximize huge contributions to political committees and blasted billions in dark money through the system, continually raising the stakes of each fund-raising deadline.

The elevation of the small-dollar donor has created other nightmarish unintended consequences, however. Democratic candidates with no hope of winning are raising ungodly sums from online liberals drawn to their flashy videos and clever slams. This is particularly the case when said candidates are running against notably loathed Republicans. In 2020, this meant Jaime Harrison, the current Democratic National Committee chairman, raised a record-breaking $131 million in his campaign against Senator Lindsey Graham, despite the fact that Mr. Harrison lost by double digits and never really had a prayer….hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into hopeless hype candidates.

As the essay notes, it has become a race to the bottom, inflaming a party’s base voters.

Can we ever know the full effect that years of emails, texts, Facebook ads and viral Twitter ads with doom-driven fund-raising appeals have had on the average voter’s conception of the country and politics? How those stimuli may have contributed to the radicalization of their recipients, especially those who aren’t in on the joke (a nihilistic campaign politics trope in which the strategists make arguments they know are phony)?

So much for my early optimism….


  1. I could simply repeat myself, but will refrain from doing so. However it is nice to be first again. 🙂

  2. This: “…congressional shock jocks…”

    It’s all performative on both sides of the aisle. Zelenskyy has an action figure. It’s all Hollywood and PR giants peddling influence.

    Meanwhile, our Secretary of State flies around the country peddling arms deals that the US/UK taxpayers fund to sell sponsorships for buying into the NATO War in Ukraine. We are funding emerging countries’ arms buys from our Military Industrial Complex.

    Further up the street, the IMF shouts at the Davos Crowd to “batten down the hatches for 2023.”

    The disconnect from reality is impressive, and people enjoy being completely distracted. It’s denialism in all its various forms.

  3. Well, Dr. Stan; those first in line during the Civil Rights Movement got the full force of the fire hoses and were the first one beat to the ground and climbed over by their followers. I don’t mind being second this morning and would not seek kudos for being first. But that is just me.

    The years I was an Independent voter, I watched candidates and paid attention to what they had done and what they promised to do. I do the same now within the Democratic party; my donations are by check directly to campaign headquarters for those I have been watching and am aware of what they have done, what they promise to do and what they stand for. Believe me, my donations fit that “small dollar donor” category, which was referred to by Tim Ryan during his debate with Trump’s candidate Vance. Yes; I get the many on-line seeking money E-mails and Facebook posts but do not donate on line. And Lester, I have safely saved my “Obama For President” yard sign in my computer room as part of history I was proud to be part of and announce to anyone driving by and sending my donations to, I also posted my first in my lifetime Obama bumper stickers.

    I am deeply disturbed and seriously pissed that the Republican party has forced me to vote only the party line AGAINST them after working in Indianapolis Republican city government from 1972 to 1994. My last 2 years, 3 months and 11 days were under Goldsmith before a previously minor health condition for 18 YEARS stressed my health to 100% disability by Social Security and the Indiana Disability Department after one interview with Social Security. It was a microcosm of the Nixon administration and a preview of Trump’s White Nationalist MAGA administration.

    This morning I have been watching the MSNBC interview with Michael Fanone, former Capital Police Officer, who has published a book, “Hold The Line” to tell what it was like inside the January 6th Insurrection. I will go directly from the blog to my Amazon account to order my copy of that book.


    “So much for my early optimism….” and my opinion.

  4. For more than two decades the internet has provided us with access to information that we could not otherwise obtain. Who would have thought way back then that it would become an extremely destructive weapon?

  5. We’ll see. Will the corporate propaganda networks succeed in adjusting reality enough to win elections? Ron Johnson has received a $25 million injection; who can beat that? Do we really want corporate fascists running our government? The upcoming election will tell. But I still send in my $20 to candidates I like.

  6. Yes, when you jump in the ActBlue pool or other internet fundraising machines you’re inundated with hysterical, misleading noise from candidates and myriad committees. That’s not a reason why a contributor should be less careful with money than when buying a toaster or preserving the rain forest. Like JoAnn Green above, I generally donate only to candidates and only after finding out who they are and whether my $10 can help win a race. I have no problems with online donations to legit services such as ActBlue. A nice feature of our modern ways is that you can block the pitches you don’t like. We small donors do not have to be victims if we simply take care and do the research.

  7. My support for candidates that I like comes in one form only. They get the most precious thing I have…my vote.

  8. “Dr.” Stan once again thumbs his nose at everyone while “safely” ensconced in the Philippines. What gall!

    My single question today is: Where does all that money end up after the candidate loses his/her election? Could they have possibly spent $100 million on TV ads? Where is the university chair that needs funding? How about paying for a science wing on the local crumbling high school?

    Nah. Let’s hide it in a Bahamian bank instead. Typical.

  9. David Dawson; thank you for referring to ActBlue because it has taken me months to get over the aggravation of daily receiving numerous E-mails accusing me of letting my membership in the Democratic party lapse. The E-mails state they come from DSCC and DCCC; I have my 2022 membership cards and for the Democratic National Committee, dues paid in January. I stopped replying to these E-mails when I found the source of all of these E-mails is ActBlue they are seeking money for. I don’t “do” go-betweens to part with my meager funds; they can hold their breath till they turn Blue.

  10. Nothing is as great as it seems and nothing is a bad as it seems. Everything has nuances that sometimes make it difficult to determine if we should support this or that. I too, get a ton of texts and emails telling me that all of these races are soooooo close that only my $10 can help my side win. Sometimes I think to myself as I delete the texts and emails, that if a candidate has a brain that functions at all, they should be able to point out the dangers of voting for election deniers or those who would strip women, blacks, gays or anyone else of fundamental rights. Dems need to stop being wishy-washy and start straight talk. I’ve always considered Tim Ryan to be a little too white-bread, but he was very good in his debate against J.D. Vance.

  11. No one yet today has made the obvious references, I will just get them out of the way. 1. Citizens United – corporations are people; 2. “Dark Money” – defunding the IRS plus lax rules plus lax oversight.

    There are good ideas out there – more obvious references to get out of the way. 1. Public finance matching small dollar donations (NYC does this) 2. Complete transparency on donations.

    A looney idea – level the playing field. Get enough signatures to get on the ballot, get a designated amount. Let the best candidate win – no further raising allowed. Win the primary, same deal.

    Too much wine last night…

  12. I’m with Theresa, they get my vote.

    As a latecomer to politics, I never had a spare 20 bucks to give anyone, especially a politician! My view is that everything is corrupt as long as Citizens United is still valid. I’ll never send another penny to support a candidate after 45 took office. I wish they used those fundraising emails to give a sample of their platform instead of begging for my money. I sent my ballot in on Tuesday so I could unsubscribe to the ones I get now. I’m sure someone will tell me that fundraising is the only way to fund campaigns and I’ll just disagree. Oh well. Send your money and continue to support the corrupt system as it is.

  13. When all of the country’s political donation experience is considered it becomes more and more apparent that the only beneficial way for the country to advertise politicians is to eliminate campaigning except for impartially organized and conducted online debates paid for out of the General Fund and financed by our usual income taxation rules. Has anyone seen an entertainment media commercial or received an electioneering email that benefited their decision as to whom to vote for? The only people benefitting from the current system are mega-wealthy donors and politicians.

    Let’s just stop wasting money and compromising politics.

  14. My solution . . . .DELETE (all emails asking for $$$ for political candidates.)

    The Dems have my vote — that’s what’s important

  15. An additional ugly fact, where does that money go – especially nowadays? Let’s see: market researchers, media producers, TV networks, BigTech – those working class folks, right?

  16. And I get e-mails telling me that I, me, this one, is the only one who has not yet responded to the survey in my
    town, or, even, state, and that to not do so NOW, within the next X minutes, will skew the results so badly, that
    the whole, entire, endeavor will utterly fail!!!!!!!!! And they often come with timers, relentlessly ticking away as I
    sit and quietly curse them, before deleting. They are not surveys, they are dollar grabbers.
    And, no, like Vernon, I’ve not sent a cent, and will not.
    “Nothing is as great as it seems and nothing is as bad as it seems,” is wisdom, thanks.

  17. A couple of notes:

    ActBlue is an agency that saves many, many individual candidates the expense of setting up an e-commerce operation. ActBlue doesn’t get your donation; it manages online donations for individual candidates. It’s a welcome service that allows campaigns to concentrate on campaigning.

    To those who say they contribute only their vote, I say, “Get real.” Campaigns cost money. Cheap campaigns lose. Do you want your candidate to go crawling to corporations? If you want to support a candidate but don’t give money, you’re not fooling anyone but yourself.

  18. David; an old friend and boss had a banner on the wall behind his desk, “There is no free lunch.” This is more true today than ever before. A good friend of mine works for ActBlue; who pays their employee’s salaries but those donating to the candidates, and the candidates do benefit by their organization. I understand they are necessary; it is the repeated insulting accusations, as if I am doing nothing for the Democratic party that galls me. I haven’t deleted them because they do provide information and surveys; if I don’t send them money, they can stop sending their unsolicited E-mails. I mailed another five small donation checks on Monday to candidates, I returned my Mail-In Ballot last week so my votes have been cast. And now I wait!

  19. Jim Hightowers latest,ya may want a lookie see how that funding money is raised by the rich.

  20. those 10 , 25, 50, 100 million dollar war chests Look good When they leave government. They can keep the money, all they have to do is pay taxes on it. and they pay the taxes like was mentioned yesterday with donated money! At least you know that person you’re donating to will live a very comfortable life when they leave office after they’ve done basically nothing for their entire tenure.

    Sheila is absolutely correct in asserting that this political ideology We concern ourselves with in this country, is a racket! Can you imagine The good that could be done with all of that money that is blown every other year? It’s really disgusting. I will not be a part of it, I gave that up a long time ago. Look at Tommy Tuberville, He definitely is a bigot, But, He’s a bigot that mingles with people of color because He was a coach. So a lot of times he gets a pass. But when he talks about one side endorses crime because It’s The same as reparations for those who’ve been asking for them. Well, what does that actually mean? It’s not rocket science! and after his comments on Saturday, He started getting turbocharged donations from small donors. Because the moron opened his mouth and said crime was allowed instead of paying reparations for those lazy bums asking for it. And so there you have it, The racket!

    And still, Those who can at least afford it keep reaching deep into their pockets , beautifully contributing To those they think will make a difference and then end up being disappointed Because If they lost, They have a nice war chest as a parting gift , if they win, they conform to a way of thinking That is not recognizable to the previous incarnation of that politician or individual.

    The real criminality is politics, Because in politics, they can lie, cheat and steal with almost complete impunity I mean if someone gets a wild hair, They can sic law enforcement on someone to make an example. After all, you don’t want to stop that gravy train! They all line up at the trough, hand out on the Dole. politicians come and go, but the one constant Are all of those bamboozled sheep without a shepherd writing those checks And digging in their pockets For whatever they can spare. and there are plenty of occasions when They give more than they can spare. These con artists and criminals have no shame. It doesn’t matter The spot stripe or shade.

  21. A 501C4, can retain any money it receives and is pretty much free to do whatever it wants, so long as it makes a broad, nonspecific pitch for your money.

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