It’s long been established as common sense for political campaigns: focus on raising money, then use that money to hire staffers and increase voter contacts (via door-to-door, mailers, commercials, etc.) Such a strategy is a top-down approach which not-so-coincidentally favors our current political and economic establishment.
If you find yourself either at the head of a corporation, union, or just with a few spare tens of thousands of dollars to burn in a campaign cycle, you have the luxury of campaigners vying for your support every cycle. And hey, if a particular candidate who wins then turns around and happens to support a bill you need passed, well, that’s just a very fortunate coincidence for you. Surely that money couldn’t have had an unofficial and unspoken quid pro quo of any sort attached to it in return- that, of course, would be bribery…
The large donor fundraising model currently in practice in much of the US can trace its modern origins in two Supreme Court rulings. First, Buckley v. Valeo was decided in 1976 and established that political spending was a form of protected speech. Second, Citizens United v. FEC removed individual spending limits to PACs (Political Action Committees, which are essentially groups that multiple people can donate money to that then distribute the money supporting political candidates, ideologies, etc.) With the Citizens United case the famous super PAC was born. Super PACs differ from normal PACs in several key ways, detailed in a graphic from Represent.US.
Thus, effectively, money is now an unlimited form of free speech. It doesn’t take an expert to see the implications for our political process from there. Those with monetary clout from corporations to hedge fund managers now have vastly more political power that they can and do exercise compared to the vast majority of citizens. It comes as no surprise, then, that popular opinion is so alienated from legislation in Congress. As Noam Chomsky recently mentioned (bold is mine):
“A recent study by Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen on “How Money Drives US Congressional Elections,” reveals a remarkably close correlation between campaign expenditures and electoral outcomes in Congress over decades. And extensive work in academic political science — particularly by Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page and Larry Bartlett — reveals that most of the population is effectively unrepresented, in that their attitudes and opinions have little or no effect on decisions of the people they vote for, which are pretty much determined by the very top of the income-wealth scale.”
Despite this reality, there is a glimmer of hope.
The candidacy of Bernie Sanders for the 2016 Democratic Nomination for President saw a change of strategy not normally seen in such a large scale in modern times. Instead of seeking corporate PAC and super PAC funds, the Sanders campaign sought out small donors. In terms of fundraising, Sanders averaged $27 per donation from a large number of small donors.
Ryan Grim’s recent article from The Intercept shines light on the fundamental shift that Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 represented. Instead of appealing to large centers of political and economic power that had been the mainstay of political campaigns for decades, the Sanders campaign went out to recruit volunteers from workers to other non-politically affiliated but motivated voters. Grim writes from campaign member Chakrabarti that despite a late entry into the 2016 race:
“By the time the campaign had finally figured things out, the end was approaching. “We didn’t even hire most of our distributed team until January 2016,” said Sandberg, “and we’d only hit a million calls, out of the 85 million that we ended up making, by Iowa.”
“Sanders stunned the political world by effectively tying Clinton in Iowa on February 1 and crushing her in New Hampshire, but she had locked in nearly all the superdelegates. She eked out a win in Nevada, crushed him in South Carolina, and ground out a victory.”
Not only that, but since Sanders was running against Hillary Clinton, a figure who virtually co-opted the Democratic party to suit her candidacy, many staffers and even vendors were reluctant to join or be affiliated with the Sanders campaign, fearing being blacklisted in future elections. The result? Staff for the Sanders campaign consisted largely of ““renegades, people with activist rather than campaign backgrounds, and operatives accustomed to taking on the establishment” as Grim notes, who “really had to fill out the ranks from the super volunteers who’d never worked in politics before”.”
What is important here is that Sanders ran on not just winning or losing, but on a political revolution that galvanized much of the left into action after being put to sleep by Obama (who would later admit himself that “if I had said the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I’d be considered a moderate Republican”.)
Sanders probably knew he’d lose in 2016- his messaging was instead focused around not simply one election cycle as is the norm, but on building a grassroots movement that outlasts the typical election cycles we’re used to. Sanders in 2016 tweeted the following after knowing he’d lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton:
“We are building a movement because this country belongs to all of us – not just a handful of billionaires and wealthy campaign contributors.”
One month later, Sanders’ campaign was effectively transformed into Our Revolution, which was launched with the focus of grassroots organizing for electing progressive candidates in elections ranging from city council to county clerk across the country. Following that in 2017, the Justice Democrats were also launched with a grassroots focus. The stipulation? To be an endorsed Justice Democrat, a candidate need only pledge not to take money from any corporate PACs or lobbyists.
One prominent Justice Democrat and Our Revolution endorsed candidate was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York. At the time, she was running in a primary against Joe Crowley who was one of the most influential Democrats from the House of Representatives and considered on a short list to succeed Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Naturally, then, he was highly connected to big moneyed interests and relied not only on keeping his seat but on expanding his influence by fundraising from such corporate and wealthy interests. Open Secrets reports that his source of funds from 2017-2018 showed small contributions (<$200) made up 0.88% of his fundraising. These small contributions form a measure of support from the average voters of modest income. Large contributions made up 33.91% and PACs gave him 54.37%.
Aida Chavez reports on the type of campaign Ocasio-Cortez was running:
“Because of New York’s complicated ballot access laws, it’s usually too much work for candidates to organize a grassroots effort themselves. Instead they spend on election lawyers, political consultants, and paid petitioners, which can cost upward of $50,000 altogether. “All of those things that money in politics buy, we’re doing ourselves,” she said.”
““We’re organizing outside of this political industrial complex or like this electioneering industrial complex.””
At the time, Ocasio-Cortez was a relative nobody who wasn’t expected to win against one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and who was deemed a rising star of the party. As the campaign progressed and the Ocasio-Cortez campaign picked up steam, she now remarks of that time:
““People are freaking out over these posters, and I’m getting like all of these texts and emails from political candidates like, ‘What firm did you use? Who was your consulting group that came up with your political identity?’”
Ocasio-Cortez then went on to beat Crowley 57.5% to 42.5% in the primary- not exactly a close election and showcasing the power of grassroots people-powered campaigns over fundraising from centers of wealth and power. Ocasio-Cortez then went on to beat Republican Anthony Pappas 78.2% to 13.6% in the general election. She now sits in the House of Representatives and is one of the most high-profile elected officials of our time.
Organizations like Our Revolution and the Justice Democrats have indeed faced a litany of electoral defeats since their inception (you can see the results here and here– You’d expect that running against the tide of our big donor money campaign system would yield such outcomes. But it is noteworthy that many of their victories have yielded some of the highest profile elected officials currently serving, including already discussed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in addition to Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, among others. Without such grassroots support systems that are beginning to emerge, it is tough to imagine these candidates winning elections as they can’t rely on the flood of corporate super PAC money so central to campaigns. Instead the strategy consists of grassroots organizing and small donor contributions.
Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus (a sub-group of Congressional Democrats- think of the Tea Party or Freedom Caucuses on the Republican side) has pledged not to take corporate PAC money. Open Secrets reports that:
“First quarter FEC filings reveal that while the majority stayed true to their word, some of the self-declared “no-corporate-PAC” candidates took money from big businesses and special interests.”
Even considering that some of the Congressional Progressive Caucus members are still funneling such PAC money into their campaigns, the pledge would have been virtually unheard of ten or even five years ago.
Several of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary hopefuls are also taking steps to at least appear hostile to PAC money. Washington Examiner reports that Kamala Harris “refuses to accept donations from corporate PACs.”, Amy Klobuchar: “We aren’t taking any corporate PAC or federal lobbyist money”, Elizabeth Warren mentions she “doesn’t accept contributions from PACs of any kind”, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign says they are “not interested in the help of any super PACs or special interest groups”. No doubt some of them will continue to find other ways to be supported by the same interests they eschew. What is worth noting, however, is that public perception and grassroots organizing is forcing many of these otherwise super PAC-friendly candidates to at least publicly refuse such money- a marked change.
Winning a political campaign is important, obviously. What is also important is the power that campaigns exert over political discourse- win or lose. Candidates may lose elections, like Sanders did in 2016 and much of the Our Revolution/Justice Democrat candidates have since. However, based on the power of messaging and coupled with the grassroots working class support these campaigns have managed to increasingly build upon, their ideas have been winning and positively affecting how new political campaigns are structured and funded.
Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court case, among others, can also be done should a presidential candidate win in 2020 who opposes money in politics. Such a president could appoint new Supreme Court justices (several of whom are currently over 60 and could retire during the next president’s tenure) who oppose the Citizens United ruling. The Supreme Court could then issue a new ruling on the matter which would overturn the previous ruling, requiring a simple majority of justices- at present five likely support (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh) and four (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) oppose.
Changing how campaigns are funded and operated won’t come easily or quickly. The efforts adopted by the Sanders campaign in 2016 and later other candidates in 2018 and 2020 are a good start at opposing big moneyed interests. Comprehensive and lasting reform of our political campaigns, on the other hand, will likely require legislation and Supreme Court action that goes to the heart of how our society allows such overwhelming power in the hands of the few.