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?