Monday, January 18, 2010

Small Donors With a Big Voice

Last week the Brookings Institute unveiled a study on how to foster citizen participation through small donors and volunteers to political campaigns, entitled Reform in the Age of Networked Campaigns. The authors are all well known and rightly respected thinkers on campaign finance reform (Anthony Corrado, Michael Malbin, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein). The conclusion of the study is that campaign finance reform should encourage small donor participation so that the percentage of small donations increases with the intent to curb potential corruption. The ideas within the study are sensible. However, it is worth examining whether the proposed reforms could encourage a new source of political coercion.

Timely to this topic is the release of Jaron Lanier’s new book, You Are Not A Gadget. In his book Mr. Lanier ponders whether the “Web’s structure and ideology are fostering nasty group dynamics and mediocre collaborations” (New York Times, January, 2010). While Mr. Lanier’s book is largely about retooling the Web through software revisions and other innovations to combat piracy, his point about hive thinking and the online mob mentality is applicable to campaign finance reform in the context of socio-political media.

The Web offers numerous places for the ideological to find a home and self-polarize. Conservatives tend to take refuge at places like Red State and Free Republic. Liberals tend to congregate at places like Daily Kos and Fire Dog Lake. These sites offer the opportunity to mix and mingle with those of a similar political persuasion and are also involved in issue advocacy (usually to the benefit of candidates aligned with their stated policy interests). These types of sites also assist in candidate money bombs; when candidates set a date to raise a specific amount of campaign contributions. Ultimately, these political ideology sites encourage the type of hive thinking that leads to a mob mentality which, with critical mass, can be very influential in a political campaign contest and upon the direction of a political party. Due to the large numbers of people engaged in politics via social media, these networks can exhibit a great deal of leverage over a candidate and political party.

The assumption in Reform in the Age of Networked Campaigns is that our current mechanism for funding political campaigns encourages corruption; with a few giving a lot to political candidates. Those few who give so much are therefore in a position to influence legislators after the election has been won. It is undeniable that giving money in the manner and amount done by corporate political action committees is intended to have influence on legislators.

When asked during the presentation of their report if their proposals could give rise to further polarization of the electorate, the authors flatly rejected the possibility. The reason for the rejection is that small donors tend not to try lever their small donation (less than $100) with candidates who become legislators. That may be true in the direct mail fundraising paradigm. However, when socio-political media donors band together to give to a candidate the percentage of small donations given with a goal in mind increases. When that increase reaches a critical mass, the band of small donors will have a clear voice that cannot be ignored by candidates, even though those donors may not be constituents.

The overall impact of social media is positive because it increases citizen participation in elections (e.g. President Obama’s 2008 candidacy). But it also raises the potential danger when combing “hive thinking” with the leverage of aggregate donations by small donors banding together who are activated by the impact they can have on candidates by bundling their contributions via socio-political media. This in turn could result in the increase of corruption, rather than its restraint which is one objective of the report offered by the authors of the Brookings Institute study. Candidates will find it is easier to say no to a handful of lobbyists than it will be to say no to large groups of organized small donors with the ability to both vote in a block and voice their demands in unison. That being said, money is an essential element to every candidacy. Greater citizen participation in campaign fundraising means more prospective donors and there isn’t a campaign professional who would decline a bigger campaign budget.