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The Tyranny of Online Fundraising

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The realities of Citizens United created a crisis in the political system. Democrats were able to effectively deal with the problem through the rise of online fundraising for candidates. This was decentralized but brought in a lot of money. It also helped people feel more of an investment in the process. That’s good in some ways, but in other ways, it’s kind of a problem. First, it contributes to the 24 hour never ending news and election cycle that leaves no space for other sorts of activism. Second, it leads to terrible uses of that money, such as dumping endless resources into pointless and hopeless Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina. Third, it proved that money is not everything in politics. Sara Gideon was so overloaded with money that she couldn’t spend it all and all of that money made absolutely no meaningful difference in her race against Susan Collins, which she lost by pretty much the same margin as she would have without any of it. Fourth, it’s made us all victims of endless appeals. We are all the sucker now. Eventually, we either opt out or we are constantly giving money to candidates like we were buying some Trump steaks.

So this is probably not the message that a lot of people want to hear a month before the midterms, but it’s still a valuable one.

As the social media outrage fund-raising model began to come into form, the political parties began to professionalize their grass-roots outreach using email and then text messages. Gone was the decentralized model Mr. Dean had road-tested, whereby supporters organized among themselves, recruiting neighbors and message board friends toward a common cause. By the 2010s, that was displaced by centralized, beta-tested boiler rooms that used powerful digital tools to prey on people’s emotions. The result is very little message variation within the party coalitions. We’ve seen a few exceptions, most notably Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. But overall, it’s a race to the bottom to inflame a party’s own voters with the most intensity and frequency.

To get a sense of just how noxious and stupid the material is that reaches America’s inboxes, I like to peruse The Archive of Political Emails’ The Firehose from time to time. A colleague of mine engineered the site for archival purposes, signing up for various lists and funneling them to the same place. You won’t be surprised to find out that The Firehose is largely devoid of that community-minded hopey-changey stuff that we were promised in the aughts. Instead it’s peppered with conspiracies, fearmongering, hyperbole, flat-out lies, gimmickry, rage fuel and a meme or two that I admit will get me to chuckle from time to time. (We all have our weaknesses.)

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)?

This part is a deep, bipartisan problem. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee might be the longest-running offender when it comes to sending apocalyptic, wheels-off messages demanding voters’ money. It has even been chastised from within its own ranks — to little effect.

There is also the more direct grift. Last year I wrote about how the National Republican Congressional Committee’s donation form used a prechecked box scheme, which automatically doubled the dollar amount and made it recurring. A warning aggressively threatened donors if they unchecked the box. Similar tactics resulted in the Trump campaign’s having to return $122 million to supporters who had been duped and, in some cases, financially devastated. If the old fund-raising system was transactional, this new one is dominated by the eternal and emotionally toxic hunt for the small donor.

I liked the closing interview with Howard Dean here:

And if you don’t believe me, the O.G. disrupter basically admitted as much.

Last week I called Mr. Dean to ask him to reflect on the devolution of the netroots model that seemed to offer so much hope for doe-eyed reformers two decades ago.

“At the time, it was a way that a young generation could start pushing their way up by using technology,” he said, “and it was incredible.”

“But now that technology has been abused,” he continued. “The right-wingers are using it in service of fascism.” He added, “And I just send all my fund-raising emails to junk.”

Me? I don’t give money to political candidates. Tons of people do that. When I give money, it’s to build power at the grassroots, such as the Providence Student Union. I am a lot more comfortable investing in the long haul, but you don’t get 1,000 emails a day begging for more money. I believe that it is the better investment of my resources. Others may disagree. But the modern political fundraising system is basically terrible either way. I hate it very much.

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