In late 2003 the spirit of revolution was in the air and on our Yahoo browsers. Shock and awe had given way to the long slog of war. And the internet was allowing supporters of politicians to use new tools such as “the Web log, or ‘blog’” to plot together in real time.
Amid this upheaval, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign saw an opportunity. It could leverage these new tools to raise money by channeling the “netroots” anger at the Republican president and the bipartisan establishment that got us into the quagmire in Iraq. Through this online community building, it brought in a record $14.8 million in a single quarter.
Mr. Dean wasn’t the first to use online fund-raising in presidential politics. John McCain’s upstart campaign had leveraged it to a less prodigious degree in 2000. “McCain Gets Big Payoff on Web Site” was this paper’s headline a few days after his surprise New Hampshire win: He had brought in nearly a million dollars in “e-donations” in just two days.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Dean both lost — but good-government types, the media and many regular Americans viewed this new funding mechanism and the little-d democratization of campaign finance as a way to challenge, and hopefully overtake, the corrupted status quo. “We really give people a lot of power, and other campaigns are scared to do that,” said Zephyr Teachout, the Dean campaign’s director of online organization, at the time.
The dreams of an idealistic outsider disrupting the existing order quickly came to fruition in 2008 when Barack Obama upended the Clinton machine, then beat Mr. McCain at his own game with an unprecedented money bomb leveraging what the journalist Sasha Issenberg has called “the victory lab.”
The overwhelmingly positive narrative about the power of small-dollar online fund-raising began to congeal: Grass-roots fund-raising is pure and good. Big-dollar donations from corporate cronies are suspect. This is what democracy looks like!!!
As it turned out, grass-roots fund-raising is also what ending democracy looks like. As with any other mass movement, people-powered campaigns followed the standard Hofferian trajectory: beginning as a cause, turning into a business and becoming a racket. Our online fund-raising system is not only enriching scam artists, clogging our inboxes and inflaming the electorate; it is also empowering our politics’ most nefarious actors.
It is how Donald Trump and his cast of clueless coupsters raised nine figures to “stop the steal” that they had fabricated to try to stay in power. It is one way our most extreme candidates dominate the conversation and gain power in our political system. It has redirected money from politicians who work to find compromises that might just help people, diverting it instead to those who either have no chance to win or, worse yet, can win and want to undermine that work for their own ends. And it’s hard to imagine how we can stop it.
A warning of the hellscape to come took place in late 2009, when a little-known South Carolina congressman named Joe Wilson raised well over $2 million after he shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a health care address to a joint session of Congress. At first, the fallout from this incident transpired in a standard before-times fashion. Mr. Wilson, a mild-mannered Southerner, apologized to Mr. Obama for the outburst.
But after the Democratic-controlled Congress censured him anyway, Mr. Wilson’s campaign team pressed the advantage. As CNN’s Peter Hamby reported at the time, it “bulked up to seize the fund-raising opportunity” and in the weeks that followed, Mr. Wilson retained a “new media strategist,” “uploaded fund-raising pleas to YouTube” and purchased banner ad space on The Drudge Report. The result: In just 12 days he collected more money than he spent during his entire previous campaign.
This moment of proto-lib-owning virality offered a playbook for a new generation of political performance artists who were more native to these tools than Mr. Wilson and cared not at all about manners or the media elite’s opinion. They learned that they could raise money and gain influence not through the long slog of relationship and coalition building in Washington but instantaneously by being jerks on the internet and calling out their voters’ enemy du jour in the most ostentatious manner they could summon.
It’s created a perverse incentive structure, empowering the congressional shock jocks at the expense of actual legislators. Meanwhile, a series of court decisions supercharged political fund-raising generally. The new no-limits era allowed big donors to maximize huge contributions to political committees and blasted billions in dark money through the system, continually raising the stakes of each fund-raising deadline.
The elevation of the small-dollar donor has created other nightmarish unintended consequences, however. Democratic candidates with no hope of winning are raising ungodly sums from online liberals drawn to their flashy videos and clever slams. This is particularly the case when said candidates are running against notably loathed Republicans. In 2020, this meant Jaime Harrison, the current Democratic National Committee chairman, raised a record-breaking $131 million in his campaign against Senator Lindsey Graham, despite the fact that Mr. Harrison lost by double digits and never really had a prayer.
The story was similar for Amy McGrath, who ran against Senator Mitch McConnell, and Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, who got shaved clean by Bryan Steil. The lesson remains unlearned: This year Marcus Flowers has raised $10 million in his assuredly hopeless race against Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene — double the receipts of more competitive races. Added together, hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into hopeless hype candidates. At a minimum, that money could be used more efficiently by the Democratic Party. But that entire way of thinking might be a reflection of broken politics brain. Aren’t there myriad better uses for all that altruism than pumping out hokey attack ads?
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.
As gross and unethical as those tactics are, the greatest threat resulting from all of this is how the very politicians who are refusing to abide by the results of democratic elections are often being funded: by the once vaunted online donor, even if this one just wants to watch the whole system burn.
Senator Josh Hawley raised around $3 million in the first quarter of 2021, mostly after he was pictured giving a salute to the rioters about to storm the Capitol. He’s even merchandising this asininity. Most of the Republican leadership has fund-raised on Mr. Trump’s conspiracy-addled social media site. Rank-and-file voters who preferred candidates who promised to decertify the last election or who might certify the next one only if they get their preferred winner (or both) helped fund those candidates in Republican primaries this year.
Many of these candidates have struggled to raise what is required for the general elections, in part because Mr. Trump is sucking up nine figures for his PACs, at least one of which spent copiously on legal fees this summer while spending little on supporting Republican candidates. But some wild-eyed insurrectionists might get swept into office during an election cycle in which Republicans perform well, and that is dangerous enough.
Maybe, then, given the results of our two-decade experiment in people-powered politics, we might temper rhetoric that glorifies the mighty grass-roots dollar. And reflect on how we might reform our financing system to disincentivize the crazy-making. Empowering the little guy and draining the swamp sounds nice and all, but as it turns out, there is something to be said for a little gatekeeping.
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.”
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