John McCain has long been seen as a congressional crusader for campaign finance reform. It now looks like Obama will fund his general election campaign largely through small, ‘grassroots’ donations from supporters. Each candidate is trying to take the moral high ground regarding his funding choices. That raises the question: which is better, public campaign financing from the state or grassroots funding from small donors?
When looking into this question, it’s important that we keep our eyes on the prize. Ideally, sources of campaign funding would have no influence on who can run and get elected. The argument for this is simple. Money is not evenly distributed; access to political representation should be.
In this light, ‘grassroots’ funding is a step forward, but problematic. On the one hand, it does diminish the influence of lobbyists and special interest PACs. But on the other, the fact remains that most ‘grassroots’ contributions are not from average citizens after all, but from the wealthier-than-average. See Jay Mandle’s Washington Post article for the numbers on this. Although certainly admirable, the success of Obama’s ‘grassroots’ fund raising relative to, say, Clinton’s, when one considers that Obama was more popular among wealthier Democrats. His base was better able to afford to make $200 contributions.
So to some extent, grassroots funding devolves the problem of money in politics from a problem of special interests to a problem of class interests. This shift looks even more dramatic when one considers that special interests are often indirectly representing working class interests (for example, in the form of unions).