A Remedy? Or A Different Disease?

There has to be a better way to finance election campaigns.

The relief I felt after the just-concluded midterm election reflected two realities: the predicted Red wave failed to materialize, and I got my email inbox back. (Mostly.) I know I was not the only person being inundated with dire warnings, announcements of a three or four time fundraising “match,” and breathlessly reported one percent polling spreads–usually featuring bright colors and huge headlines.

And all–all!–asking for money.

I don’t know who those insistent, repetitive emails were supposed to persuade. They sure didn’t make me want to send them any money. (In some cases, they made me regret the small amounts I had contributed.)

When Howard Dean first demonstrated that the internet could be employed to encourage small donations, I was thrilled. When Obama raised zillions of dollars in small increments, I  thought the days of depending on political fat cats was over. Since no candidate could be “bought” for these small contributions, I counted this as a win for democracy.

It turns out to be more complicated than that.

Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. But. (You knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?) This approach to fundraising has produced different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.

In a recent New York Times discussion between a liberal and a conservative campaign strategist, both opined that reliance on small-dollar donations is doing more harm than good.

The conservative strategist, Tim Miller, explained the problem: when McCain-Feingold banned unlimited, unregulated contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals, the fundraising focus turned to internet campaigns aimed at small donors.  That created some very perverse incentives.

I think that there were some nice sentiments about wanting to get corruption out of the system, limit the amount of money that bigger donors can give to candidates. But in doing so, campaigns weren’t going to decide to start spending less money. So they had to come up with other means in which to raise money. And it created a couple of scourges.

One, it just made fundraising the central activity for most politicians. And a lot of their time is spent around fundraising. I think that there are some pernicious side effects to that.

But it also created some negative incentives. I think one of them that I get into in the article is that what we saw very quickly, beginning with Joe Wilson, when he shouted, you lie, at Barack Obama during a joint address to Congress and then realized that he could raise a ton of money. Within 12 days, he raised more money sending out appeals to all the conservative lists he could buy than he’d raised in his entire campaign before that. Very quickly, then, there were a lot of imitators who realized that all of a sudden, they could raise big gloms of cash by being obnoxious and shouting things about the people they hate.

And I think that as a result of the decreased power, maybe the well-intentioned decreased power of bigger givers, politicians were then incentivized to do everything they could to get small-dollar money.

And usually — not entirely — that has tended to be saying things that are inflammatory, doing things that are going to get people to retweet you and post you on Facebook, spreading conspiracies, spreading mistruths. And so it has created just a different type of grift and a different type of corruption rather than the old company X gives you 20 grand in the hopes that you kill amendment Y.

When we decry contemporary political polarization, we need to recognize the part played by internet fundraising. As Miller pointed out, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene have become massively successful fundraisers by saying insane things, followed by “an email about how the left wants to cancel her.”

The liberal strategist, Micah Sifry, agreed.

I think the problem is that we have a unhealed wound in this country that dates back to the Civil War and that we have had recurring cycles where opportunistic politicians decide to feed on the prejudices and on the warped beliefs of people who think that this was supposed to always be a white Christian country, and then use that to power their political careers.

The internet now enables some people like Marjorie Taylor Greene to self-finance, as it were, because she doesn’t have to worry if every Fortune 500 company in the country decides to stop donating money to her. So I think that there’s a deeper problem, which is, why do we have 30 percent of the population that wants this insanity and will fund politicians who give it to them?

Good question….


  1. AARP warned elderly members such as me to be wary of scam PACs during the election season.


    I signed up for a few in hopes of gaining insight on policy platforms. What a huge mistake! It will take me forever to unsubscribe from political fund raising I did not even sign up for. Some PAC scams are simply harvesting contact information to be sold to political campaign operatives across the nation. This tarnishes the election season experience for everyone.

  2. I too was inundated with requests for funds. I wanted to send money to several of them. I would NOT do it via the internet with my credit card. I looked, in vain, for a way to MAIL them a check via USPS. I never found any of them accepting checks so they all got NO MONEY. I feel a little bad about that but I was not going to offer up my credit card to anyone who wrote to me.

  3. Question: Is the amount of $$ raised a function of the electoral systems we’ve adopted in the US?

    Winner-take-all systems make elections so critical to having a voice or not…..nothing in between. Perhaps Maine, California and Alaska can show us better ways ?

    I’ve never read anything on the topic but it might be something to consider?

  4. My elderly mother (soon to be 91) receives a constant stream of political fundraising appeals. She somehow managed to get herself on both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ mailing lists. We’re talking emails and snail mails. But probably worse than that are the so-called charities that inundate her and other senior’s regular mailboxes.

    She will tell me what a great cause X is and I will counter with the argument that many of these charities are just about making the executives at those agencies wealthy. (Of course they’re going to use a good cause to raise money.) Fortunately, she does not give more than $20 or $30, but still the charities then sell her name so she gets yet more solicitations. I’m sorry, but if a “charity” is paying their CEO and other execs millions of dollars each in salary, they are not going to get a dime from me. I don’t care that Charity Navigator might give them a good rating. There is no reason to pay their charity execs that much money. Plenty of people would head those charities for much less salary and do just as good a job.

  5. patmcc; it took some searching on line to get a campaign headquarters address for some candidates but sending a check usually resulted in receiving donor request forms to continue donating. I am awaiting my next donor request form from Senator Warnock’s headquarters. As a small donor to candidates in Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Arizona, I believe without small donors the Republicans could have easily bought that red wave they expected.

    Corporations are NOT people but corporations are donors…to both parties in hopes of favors returned. This will never change. It is the party decision to accept amounts above set limits and promises to return favors in some form. Look what Bernie Sanders did during his first presidential campaign; he garnered 46% of the votes will all small donations. If not for the illegal interference of Debbie Wasserman Schultz by withholding registered voter lists and openly supporting Hillary, I believe the outcome of the 2016 election would have been different. The PEOPLE wanted Bernie but were forced to vote for Hillary; all blame for the appointment of Trump to the White House cannot be laid on the Republicans.

    “When we decry contemporary political polarization, we need to recognize the part played by internet fundraising.”

    It is up to each of us, individually, to seek truth and the facts to make our decisions on who deserves to be elected. There will always be those “snake-oil salesmen,,,and women” who will find a way to scam the public and no amount of reporting facts will change their minds. Human nature is too often to take the easy way out; there seems to be no one researching a way to overcome the disease of human nature.

  6. Paul K; I must be on the same sucker list as your mother. Every day I delete, then must permanently delete, 200 – 500 political E-mails and SPAM from my computer. I researched the offers to remove my information from the web but found it makes little difference in the number of unsolicited mail I will continue receiving. So I sit and delete and delete and delete; knowing it is a futile effort to get rid of any of them permanently. I have also tried scrolling through specific E-mails to “unsubscribe” but our names are on so many web lists another site will continue. It’s like trying to get rid of cockroaches and crooked Republicans of Trump’s MAGA party still sitting in administration.

  7. It’s not like we have no control over our lives or our donations. I prefer personal contributions over corporations weighing in with huge bags of money. The downside, as described above, is annoyance and inconvenience. If you get emails from candidates you don’t like or shady aggregators (as I do), you can mark them as spam and their messages will start going into your spam folder. If similar texts are inundating you, you can block the sender. You can restrict your contributions to candidates that use Act Blue (or WinRed on the Republican side) so that just one responsible, party-endorsed entity has your credit card number.

    The proliferation of political fundraising appeals is a problem. Hard to tell whether a candidate actually needs money. There’s no accountability to the donor. There are greedy fund-raising groups. It’s just one more hassle involved with democracy. We can deal with it.

  8. You can’t fix stupid. However, look at the FTX crypto scam where the CEO was the #2 donor to Dems and built his company on fraud. And what about all the PAC loopholes to “limit” the dollar amount of direct donations?

    “I don’t need ideas/policies – I need money!”

    We need a system that limits money and places more emphasis on the platform of ideas and policies. Don’t just limit the dollars per candidate, but make it illegal to funnel dollars (bribe) public servants.

    Money in politics has corrupted our government. Period. It’s also corrupted and destroyed the free press because our media gets bribed by advertisers.

    The oligarchy collapsed the systems of governing society and the people’s watchdogs so they could continue to make rules that helped them win the game of collecting the most money (greed).

    Look at how the Military-Industrial Complex functions in our world. As Julian Assange called it, the “transnational racket of endless wars.”

    Profiteering has corrupted everything in our society.

  9. JoAnn, sister (we gave to be), I thought I was the only one to see what D W Shultz did.
    The last of my and your years are going to have to be more involved in shouting about any and all corruption.
    I am tired

  10. In combination with the ridiculously long “campaign” season, the fact the Congressional House people are up for re-election every 2 years makes their office responsibilities a part time job and fundraising a full time job. As others have stated, it is an unfortunate consequence of personal data sales that have exacerbated the incredible number of emails that I must delete every day. I block, send to spam, etc., only to have new ones pop up daily, sometimes hourly.
    Let’s confine campaigning to a reasonably limited length of time, put a spending limit on the amount per campaign cycle, then enforce it with a percentage of forfeiture to a campaign fund to be distributed equally to the competing parties. I am sure that my ideas are probably not within legal guidelines, but I can dream, can’t I?

  11. Una; thanks for the support, I am currently involved in a “shouting match” to get my Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) TRANSFERRED from my canceled Spectrum cable and Internet account to my new AT&T DirectTV cable and Internet account through Lifeline Services’ required qualification. They continue to deny the transfer, first they said the last 4 digits of my Social Security number were not valid, then told me they could find no proof I exist (I am wondering why they would respond to someone who does not exist). I mailed copies of my Social Security card, Medicare card, Voter Registration, Real ID Indiana Drivers License, birth certificate, marriage licenses to show name changes, Social Security Disability letter from 1994, my 2022 Social Security Benefits notification with amount paid to Medicare and amount of my monthly checks. Also sent copy of Spectrum letter of my qualification for ACP, their bill with the Internet fee deducted, the new AT&T Internet bill which I paid. Yesterday they denied me again because my Social Security Disability letter has expired; had they been properly trained they would know that SS Disability recipients are transferred to Social Security when we reach SS retirement age. Last week I sent a message to Rep. Andre Carson’s government office, yesterday I mailed a letter to President Biden asking for assistance (the ACP is part of his infrastructure bill) with a note of the Denial of transfer of ACP on the outside of the envelope. This morning I filed a formal complaint with the FCC; have received their confirmation with my complaint number. They required only phone number for communication so I replied to their E-mail explaining my total deafness I can only text on my cell phone or use my E-mail; added that both are covered under the Reasonable Accommodations section of the ADA. And now I wait.

    I, too, am tired and winter is already here.

  12. David Dawson and JD; if you do not delete those E-mails they remain in your account by the hundreds, then the thousands. When my Spectrum Internet was down for 2 1/2 days I had to delete then permanently delete 1,001 E-mails, mostly in my SPAM box.

  13. Todd, capitalists realized that humans would never stop killing each other for any number of reasons, so they produced a perpetual profit system to monetize that most primitive drive of the species. I agree with your point there.

    What would it be like if the government funded election campaigns and corporate/private donations were not allowed? Can you imagine the drop in office space rental rates on K Street? With almost 50,000 lobbyists doing there dance, how is it possible that we have ANY not corrupted government officials at ANY level?

  14. Every PAC should be required to identify every donor. Rules for PACs have to be revisited. It’s way too easy for a PAC and a candidate to “exchange ideas.” If you want an example of how to run an election, look no further than Great Britain: No television ads and limited campaign time (5 weeks when last I checked).

  15. Peggy – nail hit on head – limit length of time and end TV ads. They don’t have the “burden” of the First Amendment. So we are stuck…

    However…one can dream…if Congress wrote a law that says dollars are not speech, then we could limit those and ensure that every one is transparent, whatever the source.

    While dreaming…what if each candidate had the same amount of money and had to convince voters via ideas, principles and values?

  16. Our campaign finance system is broken in many ways both in what politicians do to raise money and in how the money that gets raised is spent. The system just has no redeeming features except for being the way that many politicians like. That’s the root cause problem. The politicians who contribute the least to effective governance are the fans of our broken system of campaign donating.

    There are many obvious solutions. The chances of enough politicians governing effectively enough to legislate any solution are very, very low.

    We get the government that we pay for with salaries, benefits, and donations.

  17. Political parties are unions of like-minded (largely from similar enculturation) voters. They offer like all unions the advantage of strength through numbers and organization. They offer the disadvantages of the risk of too much influence and the averaging of diverse individual preferences into grand averages.

  18. An off year election….$22B+. We must keep those lobbyists, creative nasty ad makers, TV station execs, etc. employed. They are the heart of the working class.

    What could $22B buy? One example: over 10,000 $200,000 homes….

  19. Listen, we peons don’t get a voice unless there’s been a miracle like AOC. Those Congress critters are already millionaires who have never swung a shovel of dirt in their life. Lobbyists – why do we allow that? We must reform our government activities and start over. Age limits, money limits, no campaigning for years, make voting easier, not harder. Work smarter, not for the highest bidder! Stop citizens United! Our government is not working in our interests and we must reform it. We need volunteers to step up and organize the change.
    I know, I’m just a dreamer.

  20. Since Congresspeople make the laws and they are the beneficiaries of the present system, it is futile to expect them to reform it.
    Although it’s tempting to donate, especially when you view one candidate as good and their opponent as evil, that is also futile. Whatever you give, and more, will be used to pay for the personnel, paper and postage to harass you.
    Find other ways to support your values because unless you’re a billionaire you can’t buy a politician. Your dollars are just feeding the beast.

  21. Single best way to support a candidate is via “peer to peer” campaigning. It is personal outreach to someone you know or live close to with a personal (not “crafted”) conversation about:

    – Why they should register, if they aren’t, and/or
    – Why they should vote, if they don’t always or may not be planning to, and/or
    – Why they should vote for an issue/candidate on the ballot.

    This can be a door knock, a phone call, an email, a text, a “cuppa” conversation, etc.

    The “cost”/contribution goes straight to the vote, no detour to “middle people” – and, best of all, the highest likelihood of possible success.

  22. I’m with Paul (for a change). We need public financing of political campaigns but our career politicians seem to be more comfortable with the current system, a wild west unregulated means of having the public finance their campaigns in any event – but without statutory regulation which would otherwise result from enacting public financing.

    In an idealized democracy, K Street and PACs, ALEC and Koch and others of such ilk would not be involved in politics since politicians would owe their total allegiance only to those who financed their campaigns – us – and being relieved of eight day a week fundraising, such politicians would have more time to discuss and act on the wants and needs of us funders.

    Those who argue for retention of the current system will use the old “costs to taxpayers” argument, but voluntary contributors to their campaigns and taxpayers generally who suffer from oppressive legislation drafted by ALEC and others are paying the price in all events in terms of, for instance, lower taxes for corporations and lesser representation of taxpaying citizens.

    So public financing of political campaigns? As seen above, we already have a form of public financing but are without the benefits to be derived therefrom. Let’s correct that omission – by law.

  23. I would like to see primaries go away. Primaries didn’t end corruption. Primaries don’t increase democracy. It would be one less election to pay for.

  24. Lester, yes that is was great way to support your values. I make generous donations to the ACLU. Come on folks. Don’t tell us what you want other people to do. What do you do?

  25. I donated a few dollars to a group of 3 folks running for congress, back in ’16, I believe it was.
    I have not donated since, knowing that I would then get even more e-mails than the already too
    many. And, as I was typing this, the phone rang, showing an unknown number, once again. It
    rings 4 times before stopping, and a message is never left. There was a lull, of a few days, after the
    mid-terms. I do not know if the rash of these calls that came before the election was politically
    related, or if it’s other garbage…just saying.
    JoAnn, JD, you are far from the only ones who recognized what DWS did to Bernie. Sadly it’s the
    kind of thing the Nat’l Dems do to anything that could really be progressive.
    Oh, speaking of using that word, at the gym, earlier, Faux “News” was seen to run a headline “wondering”
    whether, or not, “Progressive” will become the next “dirty word.” So, the brainwashing just goes on, and on!

  26. Often wondered what public broadcasting system television was about. Why can’t we give a preset number of campaign ads to all candidates at no charge, no negative ads allowed. Tell the people what “you” plan to do if elected. Stop the unlimited appearances, flyers, yard signs, etc. All of these are to raise money. We have seen the fruits of that over time. Good but poor candidates stand very little chance of winning against the monied candidates. The old way is broken, let’s try a different way.

  27. Somehow I managed to delete & block enough of the SPAM emails I now receive virtually zero. With my Philippine cell phone number I no longer receive any spam phone calls. Nice to live in a democracy and not have to put up with that nonsense.

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