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Problematizing Crowdsourced Political Donations

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Before I start this, give all the money you want and/or can to get Warnock and Ossoff elected in Georgia.

But I also want to problematize the system of campaign donations that has developed since Citizens United. To be fair, this system is probably the best we can do so long as that court decision remains valid. But still. Dave Wasserman pointed out something right after the election that is a starting point.

On Wasserman’s point that it’s possible nationalizing every election hurts, I think there’s at least some evidence to this. Friends of mine in Omaha noted that when Bernie Sanders came to town to rally for the progressive mayoral candidate in the city right after the 2016 elections, it nationalized the election and gained tons of conservative attention, turning the potential for a low-turnout victory into a high-turnout loss. And I do think that’s part of what is happening when we give a ton of money to candidates. It is necessary. It also probably gets the attention of the other side as well. All politics are now national politics, except in New England with its idiotic voters who will gladly vote for Susan Collins or Charlie Baker or John Sununu while also voting for Joe Biden. I am fairly agnostic as to the impact of that reality–as a general rule I think ideological consistency is a good thing. We just happen to live in an incredibly divided country.

As for donors dumping money into Amy McGrath’s hopeless campaign, I don’t know what you really do about that. People are motivated, they are going to give to who they want to. If they are giving to McGrath and also competitive seats, well, I guess that’s a net good, even if it is a very inefficient use of resources. But there’s no question that moving from an institutionalized form of campaign donations to an individualized form of campaign donations, discipline is lost. Big organizations aren’t going to give to Amy McGrath because she always a 1% chance of winning and they aren’t in it to feel good about their own donations. They are hard-headed because they have to be and have strategists to help them make those decisions for them. It is what it is though.

My own critique–and again, I don’t see any way around it at this time, is that the individualized form of class donations has a strong class impact to it that could have long-term implications. In other words, it used to be that unions were the big fundraisers for huge parts of the Democratic Party. And while existing American unions are a flawed vehicle for working-class mobilization, they are the vehicles that exist and in doing so, bring the voices of workers into politics with the specific demands that workers have. That is really lost with this individualized funding model because most of the people who can donate have a lot more money than a housekeeper or grocery store clerk. They are doctors and lawyers and professors and they work in businesses. This helps to replace a working class agenda with a middle class agenda. On some issues, this is of course just fine. I mean here particularly social issues. That’s great. And it’s not as if a lot of donors are going to be opposed to raising the minimum wage. But there are lots of specifics that workers really need to have the top of the agenda–prevailing wage laws, strengthening OSHA, card check or other labor law reform, etc–that simply aren’t going to be a priority for what is emerging as the permanent donor class in the Democratic Party. On the other hand, unions aren’t exactly returning to 1955 levels of power anytime soon. Or maybe ever.

All of this helps to reinforce a class hierarchy in America that increasingly locks working people out of the political system. Moreover, it also prioritizes campaign donations rather than other sorts of activism, including donation-based activism, and that has some down sides as well. It strongly reinforces the idea that electoral politics are the only or primary form of politics. I was teaching my students today about both Rev. William Barber and Stacey Abrams today. What both of them inherently understand is the need to build long-term organizations that have impacts both inside and outside the latest election cycle. We need to pay a lot more attention to this. A lot of people were disappointed when Abrams didn’t run for Senate. But she can make more difference by not running. Moreover, when I talk about Association of Flight Attendants head Sara Nelson’s labor leaderhsip, inevitably people say “wow, she should run for office.” No she shouldn’t! It’s so easy to find someone to vote for the right piece of legislation. And it’s SO SO HARD to find a good union leader or someone with the vision and charisma and leadership skills and work ethic to put together a long-term organization for systematic change. We need more people doing that work and not getting lured by the shiny object of an election. We do need good people for that work too, but that’s the easier side of activism.

Personally, I would rather give my donation money to the Providence Student Union than any political candidate. In fact, the writing of this post reminded me to throw another $50 their way. Sure, you give money to a young person’s organization and they might make some tactical errors and come off as too radical or have something only kind of half thought out. But you are also investing in the future, in the next years and decades.

This may sound like me complaining about nothing and at an odd time to do so. And sure, I might even agree about the latter. But it’s always good to at least think through the implications of our politics and there needs to be a place for that, to push back against an unquestioning acceptance of the current situation. Please do give Warnock and Ossoff. But we also need to watch for the traps of this sort of funding model.

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