The scourge of small-money politics

(Photo illustration by Yahoo News, Screen photos by Getty Images)
(Photo illustration by Yahoo News, Screen photos by Getty Images)

The most corrupting force in politics, we are repeatedly told, is big money — super PACs, corporate lobbyists, rapacious oligarchs. And there’s plenty of evidence to support the claim.

But let’s be clear: It wasn’t big money that drove Republican House members, before they left town last week, to approve the first-ever Congressional lawsuit against a sitting president, when they should have gotten serious about a pressing border crisis. And it wasn’t big money that had gleeful Democrats doing backflips in the streets at calls from the conservative fringe to impeach Barack Obama.

What’s really fueling the hyperbole and dysfunction in Washington now isn’t one privileged special interest or another, but rather the mouse clicks of ordinary, angry Americans whose $25 contributions add up to a mountain of influence. And in this way, at least, American politics has finally caught up to where the rest of society is going.

We have met the true enemy of rational debate, and, what do you know: It’s us.

There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed to a lot of us that Internet fundraising would be its own kind of campaign-finance reform — a way for thoughtful Americans to wrest the political process from institutional contributors. A Democrat funded by individual, small-dollar contributors wouldn’t be beholden to unions or trial lawyers. A Republican relying on ordinary voters would be able to face up to climate change, for instance, without fearing the backlash from energy companies.

John McCain (the 2000 version) was probably the first candidate to exploit that potential, raising millions literally overnight — at a time when even savvy Americans were using dial-up connections — from younger, reform-minded Republicans and independents who responded to his outsider appeal.

Four years later, Howard Dean stunned the establishments of both parties by relying on small-dollar donations to easily beat the rest of the Democratic field in fundraising right up to the eve of the primaries. And Dean’s feat seemed modest compared to what Barack Obama did in 2008, relying on an online universe of first-time donors to shatter fundraising records and erase Hillary Clinton’s vast advantage among corporate cash bundlers and interest groups.

Even then, though, niche candidates who wouldn’t have had much impact in the analog age were starting to figure out the fundraising potential of playing to darker, more divisive impulses. In 2009, an unknown Republican congressman named Joe Wilson raised something like $2 million in less than a week, and all he had to do was interrupt the State of the Union address to call the president a liar.

And soon you had the likes of Michele Bachmann calling Obama un-American (which helped her raise enough money to fuel a run for president) and Alan Grayson, an obscure Democratic congressman, calling Republicans “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” and sucking up contributions like a tractor beam. And then all of Washington started to figure out that there was real money in catering to the extremes.

On the Republican side, small-dollar contributions have enabled the rise of a new generation of outside groups that are always willing to outdo the party apparatus by going that extra step toward complete hysteria.

Last week, for instance, the Republican committee for House candidates went after small donors by trumpeting the lawsuit Speaker John Boehner and his caucus had voted to bring against Obama. That lawsuit was a pretty extreme step in itself, but as a fundraising appeal, it was trumped by the Tea Party groups who managed to up the ante yet again, calling for Obama’s impeachment. Former Rep. Allen West, a favorite among grassroots conservatives, authored an online appeal for his own PAC that included a “poll” with just one question: “Has Obama committed an impeachable offense?”

Of course, the mere mention of impeachment elated Democrats, who already thought they had hit gold with Boehner’s lawsuit and couldn’t believe that their run of good fortune had only just begun. The committee in charge of raising money for Democratic House campaigns soon announced that it had recorded its most lucrative week ever, logging almost $5 million in mostly online contributions; according to the party, the average gift was less than $20, and some 52,000 people gave for the first time.

Not that any of this stopped those same Democrats from sending out increasingly desperate and absurd appeals as the week ended, sounding as if the entire party was about to hand over its keys to the Koch Brothers if more checks didn’t start rolling in immediately.

“All hope is lost,” moaned the subject line on a Democratic email sent the very same day that the party closed out its historic week. “News just broke that Boehner shook down his Tea Party Republicans THIS MORNING for last-minute cash. … We just ran the numbers: it’ll take another 8,947 donations before tonight’s midnight fundraising deadline to be able to compete.”

Really? Not 8,946? Do people really believe this stuff?

The answer is, it doesn’t matter — these solicitations are meant to appeal to emotion, not reason. They’re aimed at the lowest common denominator of outrage. (“Hit the button! Now, now, now!”) And you can bet they’re driving the governing agendas in both parties, rather than the other way around.

It’s tempting to blame politicians for all this, but really, as is generally the case, they’re simply reflecting the culture at large. The truth is that too often in this early stage of the Internet, the sheer volume of clicks matters more than the substance of the issue. The institutional influence of the last era is slowly giving way to the tyranny of a motivated audience.

We in the news media certainly know this phenomenon. For years, we were taught that giant advertisers represented an irresistible temptation toward corruption, and we had to wall them off from anything having to do with news and editorial stances in order to avoid a conflict of interest. It was a mission we took more seriously than a lot of readers believed.

But look now at all these “most emailed” and “most shared” lists on any given day, dominated by drum-beating commentators that rally one side or the other. Does anyone imagine that the new metrics don’t encourage shriller commentaries and a shallower debate?

You can argue that advertisers and ideological readers are fundamentally different influences — that one force is driven by profit and the other purely by conviction. But from a consumer’s perspective, they bring about the same result, which is a skewing of coverage toward predetermined conclusions and away from complex truths.

It turns out that small concentrations of readers and small-dollar contributors can be as corrupting to the nation’s public life as corporate advertisers and big-money bundlers. And we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with that corruption by mob, or whether we even want to.

Like a lot of my fellow futurists, I once believed that the democratizing of information and political power — the ability of individuals to weigh in collectively — would make for a more inclusive and more enlightened political debate. Now I’m not so sure it works that way, unless we can train ourselves to be less easily manipulated by party committees and self-interested partisans, and unless our leaders can resolve to actually lead, rather than follow the loudest noise.

If that doesn’t happen, then maybe the fundraisers are right, and all hope is lost, after all.