I Was So Wrong…

As I cleanse my email feed every morning , deleting multiple frantic requests for just $2/$5/$20 or whatever, I’m reminded about my original, oh-so-naive belief that small-dollar fundraising would improve governance by removing the influence of big-dollar donors…

Silly me.

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

Let’s just say it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.

Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. Unfortunately, however, this approach to fundraising produces different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall consulted the research–and reported on the gloomy conclusions that the research supports.

Increasing the share of campaign pledges from modest donors has long been a goal of campaign-finance reformers, but it turns out that small donors hold far more ideologically extreme views than those of the average voter.

In their 2022 paper, “Small Campaign Donors,” four economists — Laurent Bouton, Julia Cagé, Edgard Dewitte and Vincent Pons — document the striking increase in low-dollar ($200 or less) campaign contributions in recent years. (Very recently, in part because Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and in part because Joe Biden has not been able to raise voter enthusiasm, low-dollar contributions have declined, although they remain a crucial source of cash for candidates.)

Bouton and his colleagues found that the total number of individual donations grew from 5.2 million in 2006 to 195.0 million in 2020. Over the same period, the average size of contributions fell from $292.10 to $59.70.

Edsall also quoted a 2019 article, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization.” That article warned about the consequences of increasing dependence on small donations, due to the fact that low-dollar donors tend to be “considerably more ideologically extreme than the average American.”

This is one of the most robust empirical findings in the campaign-finance literature, though it is not widely known. The ideological profile for individual donors is bimodal, with most donors clumped at the “very liberal” or “very conservative” poles and many fewer donors in the center, while the ideological profile of other Americans is not bimodal and features strong centrist representation.

It turns out that rising dependency on small-dollar donors has been one of the major reasons we’ve seen a decline in the strength of political parties–and the inability of party leaders, especially but not exclusively in the GOP, to control their respective crazies.

Political parties have been steadily losing the power to shape the election process to super PACs, independent expenditure organizations and individual donors. This shift has proved, in turn, to be a major factor in driving polarization, as the newly ascendant sources of campaign contributions push politicians to extremes on the left and on the right.

Edsall writes that Citizens United “was a crucial factor in shaping the ideological commitments of elected officials and their challengers.” It ushered in our era of independent expenditures and of dark money, leaching power that used to be exercised by the political parties.

The small donors who contribute to Trump are also those who fund the looney-tunes.

Edsall reports that Marjorie Taylor Greene raised $12,546,634, with 68.32 percent coming from small donors; Matt Gaetz raised $6,384,832, of which 62.24 percent came from small donors; and Jim Jordan raised $13,975,653, of which 58.05 percent came from small donors. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and AOC appealed most to small donors (although I would note that Sanders and AOC are both sane and hard-working legislators–something that  certainly can’t be said about Greene, Gaetz and Jordan.)

Donations of $200 or less made up 69 percent of the individual contributions to Trump’s campaign.

And speaking of Citizens United, in its wake, spending by ideological and single-issue independent expenditure organizations grew from $21.8 million in 2006 to $66 million in 2016. During that same time-period, spending by political parties fell from 24 percent of the total to 16.2 percent, and the influence of dark money grew significantly.

There’s much more in Edsall’s column, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. The bottom line is that we now have a system that incentivizes extremism. Social media and the Internet enable lunatics to self-finance; they don’t worry that Fortune 500 companies will stop giving them money, because 30 percent of the population wants insanity and is willing to fund the politicians who give it to them.

I have no clue what we do about this, but a more politically savvy Supreme Court would help….


  1. Small donations provide politicians in heavy advertising mode with pocket change and some useful campaign materials – “the candidate for the little people” – as the vast majority of voters are, apparently, “little”. That’s necessary but miles from sufficient.

    What would make it useful is to lock out the heavy hitters who pay for what we little people literally hate, endless and limitless candidate advertising. Our vote for who we hate least would change then to who we think would best represent us.

    Real progress.

  2. Citizens United should join Dobbs on the repeal chopping block in favor of public financing of political campaigns.

  3. Yes you do!
    Fund the Parties and have each Party
    fund all of its candidates’ campaigns!
    No fundraising by politicians, period!

  4. Allowing money in politics – in any amounts? What could possibly go wrong?

    Once again, with Citizens United v. FEC, Republicans’ lust for power at any cost (pun intended) supersedes, in their tortured minds, any care about honesty in government, never mind governing for the people.

    Overturn the Electoral College. Election day should be a national holiday. Voters are registered the day they get their driver’s license even though 16-year olds will have a two-year waiting period. All Federal election funding is government paid. NO PRIVATE MONEY AT ALL. The same with state level elections.

    Let’s see what sort of politicians creep out of the closets with those arrangements in place.

  5. Just as we will always, hopefully at much lower level, rely on fossil fuels for energy; corporate donations to both political parties will always be a factor and a necessity to carry out campaigns. It is the political back-scratching that is the problem. Discouraging the – WE – small donors that our hard-earned or retirement benefit dollars aren’t worth sending that is insulting and many are giving up donating like those who believe their vote doesn’t count aren’t voting. Trump bared the dirty under-belly of the American public’s racism and bigotry in all its ugly forms and they are willing to part with their money to maintain their freedom to act-out in violence against those they have been convinced are going to take their guns and live off of their tax money. While corporations and the wealthy are major donors, they are out numbered by the small donors; befitting the current Trump Republican basis of QUANTITY vs. QUALITY.

    I intend to continue donating what I can when I can, with fingers crossed, that my few dollars and my mail-in vote will count. There are those who have much to say on all issues before us who refuse to part with any of their money to back up their words.

  6. Donation amounts may be less per donor, but I would counter that I would welcome the $5 donation because someone who has skin in the game will be more apt to promote that candidate to their friends, and they will certainly go vote for the person they donated to. 500, 5000 or 50000 $5 donations may not counter what a corporation can invest, but it is the vote that wins elections.

  7. I think it’s safe to say that anything Sam Alito supports is most likely going to be an abomination. Sam really loves the Citizens United decision, so we should do whatever it takes to override or negate that decision. A good legislative start would be a requirement to disclose all donors to any 501C corporation.

  8. Citizens united, and the Electoral College both need to go, then we can work to develop a more democratic system.

  9. BARD and I came up with several potential solutions to the problem of small-dollar donations funding extremism.

    1) Public financing of elections: This would provide candidates with a public fund that they could use to run their campaigns, regardless of how much money they raised from private donors. This would help to level the playing field and make it more difficult for extremists to gain an advantage by raising large sums of money from small donors.

    2) Limiting the amount of money that individuals and organizations can donate to political campaigns: This would reduce the influence of wealthy donors and make it more difficult for extremists to raise the money they need to run their campaigns.

    3) Requiring candidates to disclose the source of their campaign contributions: This would make it easier to track the flow of money to extremist candidates and to hold them accountable for their donors.

    4) Encouraging people to donate to moderate and mainstream candidates: This would help counter extremists’ influence by increasing the amount of money available to moderate and mainstream candidates.

    5) Educating the public about the dangers of extremism: This would help people to understand the threat posed by extremism and to make informed decisions about who to donate to.

    It is important to note that no single solution is likely to be effective on its own. A combination of approaches is likely necessary to address this complex problem.

    In addition to the above, some other things can be done to address the problem of small-dollar donations funding extremism. These include:

    1) Strengthening the enforcement of campaign finance laws would make it more difficult for extremists to circumvent the law and raise money from small donors.

    2) Supporting organizations that combat extremism: These organizations can help educate the public about the dangers of extremism and promote tolerance and understanding.

    3) Engaging in civic dialogue: This can help to build understanding and tolerance between people of different political beliefs.

    It is important to remember that there is no easy solution to the problem of small-dollar donations funding extremism. However, we can progress in addressing this challenge by taking a comprehensive approach.

  10. Dishonest brokers, selfish, self-a-grandizing demagogues, narcissistic sociopaths, I’ll have one thing in common, they know how to appeal to those who are searching but never finding.

    Commerce, politics, and religion pretty much covers it. Vern reminded me how much these three are connected to manipulate the general population.

    The military arm of politics continues sewing fear in the quest for more and more money. Billions upon billions upon billions are spent on weapons and, with that, deception and deceit. The latter grease the palms and line the pockets of politicians. Lobbyists who mostly are former politicians, know exactly how to work the system to squeeze the maximum amount of tax dollars out of it.

    The line has been blurred between lobbyists and politicians. You don’t have one without the other. The politicians have rewritten finance laws in politics so that they can keep and spend how they wish, campaign contributions even after they leave office. So it’s beneficial to increase that war chest! Not for the greater good, but for the greater greed.

    The symbiotic relationship between donation and voting? Not hardly! There is no concern about those who donate and their opinions, especially from the small donors. They are the easiest to bamboozle. A little eye wash, a little ear wash, a little brainwash!

    The big money from corporate entities, The so-called dark money, and super PACs, they don’t have to brainwash anyone, they pay to play! And what’s supposedly is illegal, this dark money seems to materialize Not only from inside the borders of this country but outside of it. Why else would they want to keep it dark? Look at how the Russian government used the NRA funnel money to the politicians!

    Like chameleons, they have learned from their environment. And without the seriousness concern or functioning courts, it remains business as usual!

    An example of this was how all of these politicians thought Vladimir Putin was such a great guy, they knew what the deal was with him, but they figured Putin would throw plenty of cash their way if they were publicly extolling his virtues!

    It’s all too systemic, politicians authorize The war, commerce produces the weapons, and religion blesses the weapons!

    It’s no different than slavery, the exact same scenario or playbook was used then. Authorize the use of slaves, commerce imports the slaves, and religion blesses the arrangement!

    You want a Trinity? Well there it is! There is no coincidence involved, dig through history and you find the same thing as far back as the written record allows.

    The reason it continues over millennia, is, it’s intoxicating! Everyone who has the ability gets a little snort, a little taste, and they are hooked for life. And the brainwashed, they fall in line because they are looking to belong, they’re seeking but never able to find. They are kind of like bait fish, luring in the larger ones.

    James 1:22 reads, become Doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourself with false reasoning!

    Wow, even back then they were talking about willful delusion, thousands of years and still can’t get it figured out. All of a sudden humanity is going to have an epiphany? By that time it’ll be way too late.

    Jesus Christ told his apostles at Matthew 14:15; “Let them be. Blind guides is what they are. If, then, a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” He was referring to the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin, those who were supposed to be following and teaching the Mosaic law.

    Read Luke 12:15-20!

    Greed is like a cancer, and, an addiction! And remember, religion is not scripture. Because scripture has been warning against this very thing from the beginning.

  11. If you want to get money out of politics, stop putting it in. If you don’t want your elected officials to be for sale, stop trying to buy them. When someone asks you to donate to a candidate or party, just say no. Instead of giving money, support your choice with your vote and your voice. Let the millionaires on the right and left pour THEIR money down the rat hole of political corruption.

  12. I’m curious about who the “extreme” political actors on the left are. Unless folks are calling for seizing the means of production, I don’t think there is an extreme left in the US to speak of.

  13. You are correct. There is no American Left comparable to that of the European Left. Our Overton Window has been dragged so far to the Right that moderate liberalism looks “Left” to most Americans.

  14. There is an International Socialists Party that has journalists covering the world and do a great job of breaking it down. They are very critical of the bourgeoisie parties on the right and left in the West. They are even critical of DSAs in the USA and Scandinavian countries.

    However, our Democrats have “sworn off Socialism,” so there is no need to fear the lefties.


  15. I do not give to politicians except for one senator whom I would love to see run for President some day. Three bucks a month keeps me on his mailing list. Otherwise I give my puny $25 gifts to hungry people and hungry animals, for whom these small gifts might actually make a difference when combined with other small gifts.

  16. I think we have to accept the fact that about 30% of the country doesn’t really understand democracy and how it works and doesn’t want to. (it’s a case of I know what I know. Don’t confuse me with the facts!) They are happy to support “God, guns and freedom” (freedom for them; the rest of us are not so much.) The oligarchs are laughing all the way to the bank and marginalized folks are wondering what’s next for them. The White Christian Nationalist preachers, like Mike Huckabee (here’s a recent quote from him on an episode of his TV show: if former president Trump loses the 2024 election because of the many indictments grand juries have handed down concerning his behavior, “it is going to be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.”) are also raking in the loot from the faithful deluded souls. The GOP has been working for years to position themselves where hey are now and we were too naïve, thinking they would play by the rules. When they said “The South shall Rise Again!” they weren’t just whistling Dixie.

  17. As usual, Vernon has some good ideas, if only they could be enacted. Todd also made good suggestions.

    Now for an insider’s, cynical view of the demise of political parties – honesty and democracy.

    In the “bad old days” there were patronage jobs, hence party loyalty. There was “walking around money” to pay people to pass out slates on election day — and there were party slates.

    Add to that, the replacement of state conventions with primaries, especially on the national level. The Democrats have even reduced the number of “super delegates” due the their perceived tilt towards Hillary.

    There has always been outsiders. As I have mentioned before, I have always challenged the “official” Democratic Party, but in some instances, they have come around, dumping a racist sitting state senator for a progressive in the early ’70s to embracing the “outsider” Obama people after 2008.

    But in general, removing the monetary incentives and allowing for outsiders has decreased party strength. Small money donations has moved this along even further. Until some real campaign finance reforms can be instituted, I don’t see a change in the trends.

  18. The number of small donors does not surprise me. Every day I see ads on Facebook from politicians asking for a small donation to help oust some troglodyte in Congress. The number is about the same as the number of ads for treatments for neuropathy, which seems to be increasing all the time.

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