Category: campaign finance

post-election updates

Like a lot of people, I was completely surprised by the results of the 2016 election.

Rationally, one has to take these surprises as an opportunity to update ones point of view. As it’s been almost a month, there’s been lots of opportunity to process what’s going on.

For my own sake, more than for any reader, I’d like to note my updates here.

The first point has been best articulated by Jon Stewart:

Stewart rejected the idea that better news coverage would have changed the outcome of the election. “The idea that if [the media] had done a better job this country would have made another choice is fake,” he said. He cited Brexit as an example of an unfortunate outcome that occurred despite its lead-up being appropriately covered by outlets like the BBC, which offered a much more balanced view than CNN, for example. “Trump didn’t happen because CNN sucks—CNN just sucks,” he said.

Satire and comedy also couldn’t have stood in the way of Trump winning, Stewart said. If this election has taught us anything, he said, its that “controlling the culture does not equate to holding the power.”

I once cared a lot about “money in politics” at the level of campaign donations. After a little critical thinking, this leads naturally to a concern about the role of the media more generally in elections. Centralized media in particular will never put themselves behind a serious bid for campaign finance reform because those media institutions cash out every election. This is what it means for a problem to be “systemic”: it is caused by a tightly reinforcing feedback loop that makes it into a kind of social structural knot.

But with the 2016 presidential election, we’ve learned that Because of the Internet, media are so fragmented that even controlled media are not in control. People will read what they want to read, one way or another. Whatever narrative suits a person best, they will be able to find it on the Internet.

A perhaps unhelpful way to say this is that the Internet has set the Bourdieusian habitus free from media control.

But if the media doesn’t determine habitus, what does?

While there is a lot of consternation about the failure of polling (which is interesting), and while that could have negatively impacted Democratic campaign strategy (didn’t it?), the more insightful sounding commentary has recognized that the demographic fundamentals were in favor of Trump all along because of what he stood for economically and socially. Michael Moore predicted the election result; logically, because he was right, we should update towards his perspective; he makes essentially this point about Midwestern voters, angry men, depressed progressives, and the appeal of oddball voting all working against Hilary. But none of these conditions have as much to do with media as they do to the preexisting population conditions.

There’s a tremendous bias among those who “study the Internet” to assign tremendous political importance to the things we have expertise on: the media, algorithms, etc. My biggest update this election was that I now think that these are eclipsed in political relevance compared to macro-economic issues like globalization. At best changes to, say, the design of social media platforms are going to change things for a few people at the margins. But larger structural forces are both more effective and more consequential in politics. I bet that a prediction of the 2016 election based primarily on the demographic distribution of winners and losers according to each candidate’s energy policy, for example, would have been more valuable than all the rest of the polling and punditry combined. I suppose I was leaning this way throughout 2016, but the election sealed the deal for me.

This is a relief for me because it has revealed to me just how much of my internalization and anxieties about politics have been irrelevant. There is something very freeing in discovering that many things that you once thought were the most important issues in the world really just aren’t. If all those anxieties were proven to just be in my head, then it’s easier to let them go. Now I can start wondering about what really matters.

developing a nuanced view on transparency

I’m a little late to the party, but I think I may at last be developing a nuanced view on transparency. This is a personal breakthrough about the importance of privacy that I owe largely to the education I’m getting at Berkeley’s School of Information.

When I was an undergrad, I also was a student activist around campaign finance reform. Money in politics was the root of all evil. We were told by our older, wiser activist mentors that we were supposed to lay the groundwork for our policy recommendation and then wait for journalists to expose a scandal. That way we could move in to reform.

Then I worked on projects involving open source, open government, open data, open science, etc. The goal of those activities is to make things more open/transparent.

My ideas about transparency as a political, organizational, and personal issue originated in those experiences with those movements and tactics.

There is a “radically open” wing of these movements which thinks that everything should be open. This has been debunked. The primary way to debunk this is to point out that less privileged groups often need privacy for reasons that more privileged advocates of openness have trouble understanding. Classic cases of this include women who are trying to evade stalkers.

This has been expanded to a general critique of “big data” practices. Data is collected from people who are less powerful than people that process that data and act on it. There has been a call to make the data processing practices more transparent to prevent discrimination.

A conclusion I have found it easy to draw until relatively recently is: ok, this is not so hard. What’s important is that we guarantee privacy for those with less power, and enforce transparency on those with more power so that they can be held accountable. Let’s call this “openness for accountability.” Proponents of this view are in my opinion very well-intended, motivated by values like justice, democracy, and equity. This tends to be the perspective of many journalists and open government types especially.

Openness for accountability is not a nuanced view on transparency.

Here are some examples of cases where an openness for accountability view can go wrong:

  • Arguably, the “Gawker Stalker” platform for reporting the location of celebrities was justified by an ‘opennes for accountability’ logic. Jimmy Kimmel’s browbeating of Emily Gould indicates how this can be a problem. Celebrity status is a form of power but also raises ones level of risk because there is a small percentage of the population that for unfathomable reasons goes crazy and threatens and even attacks people. There is a vicious cycle here. If one is perceived to be powerful, then people will feel more comfortable exposing and attacking that person, which increases their celebrity, increasing their perceived power.
  • There are good reasons to be concerned about stereotypes and representation of underprivileged groups. There are also cases where members of those groups do things that conform to those stereotypes. When these are behaviors that are ethically questionable or manipulative, it’s often important organizationally for somebody to know about them and act on them. But transparency about that information would feed the stereotypes that are being socially combated on a larger scale for equity reasons.
  • Members of powerful groups can have aesthetic taste and senses of humor that are offensive or even triggering to less powerful groups. More generally, different social groups will have different and sometimes mutually offensive senses of humor. A certain amount of public effort goes into regulating “good taste” and that is fine. But also, as is well known, art that is in good taste is often bland and fails to probe the depths of the human condition. Understanding the depths of the human condition is important for everybody but especially for powerful people who have to take more responsibility for other humans.
  • This one is based on anecdotal information from a close friend: one reason why Congress is so dysfunctional now is that it is so much more transparent. That transparency means that politicians have to be more wary of how they act so that they don’t alienate their constituencies. But bipartisan negotiation is exactly the sort of thing that alienates partisan constituencies.

If you asked me maybe two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with these cases. That was partly because of my positionality in society. Though I am a very privileged man, I still perceived myself as an outsider to important systems of power. I wanted to know more about what was going on inside important organizations and was frustrated by my lack of access to it. I was very idealistic about wanting a more fair society.

Now I am getting older, reading more, experiencing more. As I mature, people are trusting me with more sensitive information, and I am beginning to anticipate the kinds of positions I may have later in my career. I have begun to see how my best intentions for making the world a better place are at odds with my earlier belief in openness for accountability.

I’m not sure what to do with this realization. I put a lot of thought into my political beliefs and for a long time they have been oriented around ideas of transparency, openness, and equity. Now I’m starting to see the social necessity of power that maintains its privacy, unaccountable to the public. I’m starting to see how “Public Relations” is important work. A lot of what I had a kneejerk reaction against now makes more sense.

I am in many ways a slow learner. These ideas are not meant to impress anybody. I’m not a privacy scholar or expert. I expect these thoughts are obvious to those with less of an ideological background in this sort of thing. I’m writing this here because I see my current role as a graduate student as participating in the education system. Education requires a certain amount of openness because you can’t learn unless you have access to information and people who are willing to teach you from their experience, especially their mistakes and revisions.

I am also perhaps writing this now because, who knows, maybe one day I will be an unaccountable, secretive, powerful old man. Nobody would believe me if I said all this then.

Follow the money back to the media

I once cared passionately about the impact of money in politics. I’ve blogged about it here a lot. Long ago I campaigned for fair elections. I went to work at a place where I thought I could work on tools to promote government transparency and electoral reform. This presidential election, I got excited about Rootstrikers. I vocally supported Buddy Roemer. Of course, the impact of any of these groups is totally marginal, and my impact within them even more so. Over the summer, I volunteered at a Super PAC, partly to see if there was any way the system could be improved from the inside. I found nothing.

I give up. I don’t believe there’s a way to change the system. I’m going to stop complaining about it and just accept the fact that democracy is a means of balancing different streams of money and power, full stop.

There is silver lining to the cloud. The tools for tracking where campaign donations are coming from are getting better and better. MapLight, for example, seems to do great work. So now we can know which interests are represented in politics. We can sympathize with some and condemn others. We can cheer for our team. Great.

But something that’s often omitted in analysis of money in politics is: where does it go?

So far the most thorough report I’ve been able to find on this (read: first viable google hit) was this PBS News Hour. It breaks it down pretty much as you would expect. The money goes to:

  • Television ads. Since airtime is limited, this means that political ads were being aired very early on.
  • Political consultants who specialize in election tactics.
  • Paid canvassers, knocking door-to-door or making phone calls to engage voters.

Interesting that so much of the money flows to media outlets, who presumably raise prices for advertising when candidates are competing for it with deep pockets. So… the mainstream media benefits hugely from boundless campaign spending.

Come to think of it, it must be that the media benefits much more than politicians or donors from the current financing system. Why is that? A campaign is a zero-sum game. Financially backing a candidate is taking a risk on their loss, and in a tight race one is likely to face fierce competition from other donors. But the outlets that candidates compete over for airtime and the consultants who have “mastered” the political system get to absorb all that funding without needing any particular stake in the outcome of the election. (Once in office, can a politician afford to upset the media?)

Who else benefits from campaign spending? Maybe the telecom industry, since all the political messaging has to run over it.

Maybe this analysis has something to do with why generating political momentum around campaign finance reform is a grueling uphill battle. Because the more centralized and powerful a media outlet, the more it has to gain from expensive campaign battling. It can play gatekeeper and sell passage to the highest bidder.

Taking it one step farther: since the media, through its selection of news items, can heavily influence voters’ perception of candidates, it is in their power to calibrate their news in a way that necessitates further spending by candidates.

Suppose a candidate is popular enough to win an election by a landslide. It would be in the interests of media outlets to start portraying that candidate badly, highlighting their gaffes or declaring them to be weak or whatever else, to force the candidate to spend money on advertising to reshape the public perception of them.

What a racket.

Truth vs. Power: Buddy Roemer, SOPA, money in politics and liberation technology

Buddy Roemer is a former Governor and Congressman of Louisiana who is running for president as a Republican. He has so far not been allowed to take part in any televised debates, and so is relatively unknown. The television stations say that he is not eligible to debate because he has not raised sufficient campaign contributions. This is a problem for Buddy, because he has refused to accept Super PAC money and caps individual donations at $100.

Whatever else one may say about Roemer as a candidate, there is something wrong with this picture. Putting aside the other tools of the modern campaign (advertising, for example), the debate is the cornerstone of rational politics. In these events, we pretend for a moment that we are lead by those who are able to persuade us to follow them. This is only a fantasy when reasonable candidates are barred from entry.

Of course, politics is not a fair fight for our approval as citizens. Citizens are pawns. Or, perhaps more appropriately, ants ready to swarm to any greasy slick of propaganda spewed from the orifices of power. So must we be viewed by the billionaire Super PAC donors who have been investing in the Romney campaign, shareholders ready to instate their loyal CEO.

Is it going too far to say that these Romney shareholders aim to turn a profit on the presidency? We could consider the alternative: that these are philosopher-king oligarchs, who have spent their lives earning their billions through honest business only to turn their attention to national politics and endorse Mitt Romney. Out of selfless benevolence, they seek a consistent champion of middle and lower classes. Some of them think Gingrich would be a better one.

No, that seems unlikely.

If there is any iron law of politics, it is that those in power aim to keep themselves in power. Companies that succeed will try to maintain their market power, even when their products face obsolescence. Unions that triumph will shift demands from workers rights to the excluding the unorganized. Non-profits that form out of genuine selfless action contort themselves to chase funding and become whatever will justify their existence. Prison systems will fight to incarcerate more people. Political parties will try to maintain control of political messaging to keep out political diversity. And so on.

Truth erodes the grip of power. By recognizing these patterns as what they are, we can choose to deny them. We can liberate ourselves by holding institutions of power to account.

However, truth is something we transmit to one another. Truth travels as information. In our era, that means the spread of truth is controlled by mass media and information technology. But media and IT are themselves part of our economy and politics. Herein lies the problem.

SOPA is a good example of this. Media companies that want to use the power of the state to enforce monopolies on their works (Hollywood, the RIAA, etc.) are battling with Internet companies that profit from easy sharing of information across networked users (Google, Facebook, Twitter) over control of the Web. The media companies have been playing politics for much longer than the internet companies. One friend of mine explains to me that the Hollywood lobbyists are physically older than Google’s. They have been on K Street longer. They have better connections with legislators and other lobbyists. So they are winning.

Buddy Roemer is trying to expose this truth about how politics works–that policies are determined not by citizens but by lobbyists paid for by the rich and powerful. He has other politics but he has ripped this plank from his platform and sharpened it into a spear fit for the head of Mitt Romney.

But the media companies by and large control the spread of truth. These media companies are in their tangle of alliances with powerful political parties and corporations, they have no incentive to let in a candidate who is so eager to blow the lid off the whole complex. So they raise the requirements of debate eligibility to exclude anyone who isn’t playing their power games.

So Roemer has turned to non-mass media to launch his campaign. Roemer has been working hard on his Web campaign, using social media (especially Twitter) to get his message out.

Perhaps Roemer’s faith in this alternative structure is due in part to his witnessing of the Occupy movement. I believe it can be uncontroversially said at this point that social media was necessary (though not sufficient) for the successes of the Occupy movement, whether in organizing, gaining publicity, and in responding tactically to suppression. Its success in raising the issue of inequality in national politics has been due largely to its independence from centralized media. It continues to use the Internet to organize itself over the winter in order to plan its next moves for 2012. Perhaps Roemer can raise awareness about political inequality through similar channels.

It is worth watching and studying these events because the question of whether and under what conditions information technology can be liberation technology will determine our future. Is it possible for a message that is true but unpopular with power to spread? Under what conditions? This is not just a question of theoretical interest. It is a strategic question for those concerned with their own freedom.

We have many clues to this question already. We have the efficacy of the open Web, as opposed to centralized media channels, in assisting politics of truth. In SOPA, we see how the centralized hub of the Internet, its DNS system, is where it is most vulnerable to attack by powers that are threatened by it.

On the other hand, open data programs by governments show that there is also a politics of mutual empowerment through sharing information with citizens. Government transparency initiatives allow the kinds of analysis and awareness of money in politics that show us who is supporting SOPA and help us verify the claims of Buddy Roemer and the like. And SOPA has shown examples of industries that are able to gain power by benefiting openness and wage political battles to defend it.

What technologies are needed to further embolden truth? What strategies will get these technologies into the hands of those that can use them? How can truth be sifted from fiction, anyway? Can we find out before a growing concentration of power stamps out our ability to search and disseminate our answers?

I am eager to discuss these topics with anyone interested and collaborate on solutions.

A vote for Roemer is a vote for Obama

I’ve spent the New Years with friends from DC who I think of as “Washington Insiders” because they work in or with various parts of the government. Unlike the people I normally talk shop with, they have never even heard of Richard Stallman. They are dismissive of the Occupy movement or just don’t want to talk about it. They are pessimistic about the next election, because they see it as a sure victory for Mitt Romney. Many of them were active in the Obama campaign, and will likely be involved in the campaign in some capacity this coming year. The are grim.

When I brought him up, one of them told me that “Buddy Roemer is a joke”–as if there was nothing at all sensible about a former Congressman running as a government reform protest candidate after two years of Tea Party and Occupy press. I have to remind them that Buddy was once Louisiana’s Governor, not just a Congressman. One friend jokes, “Good people don’t become Governor of Louisiana.” I don’t really know what he’s talking about, but Buddy seems like good people to me.

I ask if he could be a third party spoiler. “No, that’s unrealistic. I mean the last time there was a third party spoiler was…” It gets him thinking. “Well, there was a minor spoiler effect with Nader in 200, but the last real spoiler was Perot in 1992.” That sounds like once a decade to me. We’re due.

Let’s play it out. Roemer is running as a Republican currently. He has a slim to nothing chance of winning the primary. Suppose he continues to run as an independent. Suppose he is allowed to debate nationally and get public attention.

Buddy is an old Southern white man who will spend his time at the debate telling Mitt Romney that he is fake and bought, which is the elephant in the room around Romney and the root of the flip-flopping that so pisses of his base. No wonder the GOP won’t let Buddy debate with them. But in a national debate, Buddy could easily steal elements of the Romney’s base in addition to swing voters.

If things are as dismal for Obama as some say (though at the moment he’s InTrading at 51%…) then Roemer on that ballot could be the spoiler he needs to pull things through. Obama, after all, ran on “Change” originally, and could have plenty to agree with Roemer about, but with the spin that it’s only the Republican party that is as influenced by money in politics.

At this point, I don’t see a stronger move for the center-left than backing Roemer and helping him get on the ballot.

Connecting the dots

SOPA is backed by a large industry coalition led presumably by the industries that on-line piracy hurts most, including Hollywood and the RIAA. These industries have tremendous influence over Congress because of their campaign contributions, despite the fact that the education sector and human rights organizations oppose the bill.

Campaign finance reform is a hot political topic right now, but mostly only among the netroots and those that get their political news through the Internet. The Internet has allowed grassroots activists to get national attention despite the lack of coverage by traditional media through, for example, viral video. And the Internet has offered an alternative means of nominating a presidential candidate and allowing them to appear on the ballot.

If SOPA passes, the value of the Internet as a platform for political organizing will be greatly diminished. And the political influence of those industries who are fighting for SOPA will be secure.

Is it possible that SOPA is being pushed through Congress to deliberately destroy the Internet, in order to break the one platform that has potential to truly change politics?

Would Congress rather destroy the Internet than adapt to a new technology that makes a united and informed citizenry, politically represented by those that honor its rights and values, possible?

Would it smash the greatest engine of innovation the United States has ever seen in order to enshrine powers whose time has come and past?

Perhaps, SOPA is more than an assault on the Internet. Maybe it’s an assault on what’s left of democracy in our once great nation.

Public vs. grassroots campaign financing (part 3)

Earlier, I argued that grassroots campaign funding doesn’t really make campaigns more democratic. Public campaign financing is better, but only if it is designed to actually level the playing field. The U.S. federal campaign finance system is not well-designed for this.

One of the often cited problems with public campaign finance in the United States is its susceptibility to ‘loopholes.’ While most campaign finance systems will attempt to impose some constraints on private contributions, it appears that the politically motivated always find a way around the restrictions. 527 organizations are the most notable examples of this, but there are others. For example, a thorough study of the donors to local campaigns will reveal that in many cases all the employees of a particular company will individually make donations to one candidate up to the local limits. If it is possible for the leadership of the company to pressure employees to contribute in this way, then company has effectively gotten around the legal restrictions its own ability to donate as a company.

The typical response to this sort of news is the call for stronger restrictions and better enforcement of them. But this generates a backlash. Many argue that we have a right to make private campaign contributions, a right derived from our right to free speech. Whether or not this moral argument is correct, it has been enforced by the Supreme Court in Randall v. Sorrell. In addition, many see private ‘grassroots’ campaign contributions as a revitalization of political participation.

So removing the influence of money from politics completely appears hopeless. Thankfully, one fact means that despite ‘loopholes’, public campaign financing still can mitigate the problem of unequal representation based on wealth.

That fact is the diminishing returns of campaign funding. A candidate with a $15,000 budget has an enormous advantage over a candidate with a $5,000 budget. But if candidates’ budgets are $30,000 and $20,000, then the advantage is much smaller even though the dollar difference is the same. At some point the campaign message saturates its audience. Empirical research into the effects of campaign finance consistently report that the effect on elections of differences in funding between major candidates is surprisingly small

What public campaign financing can have a big effect on, though, is who gets to be a major candidate in the first place. Third party candidates don’t get a break in our system. And in states where the major party PAC’s have a lot of funding and power, representatives from low income districts can be held hostage to the interests of their state PAC without whose support they would not be able to run for office. A strong and fair system of public campaign financing solves these problems.

So ultimately, grassroots funding and public campaign financing are compatible–we can have a system that allows for both. But public financing is absolutely necessary to reduce the effects of money on politics, even if it can’t eliminate them entirely.

Web class campaign finance

Sean Tevis, journalist-turned-information-architect, is running for Kansas State Representative for District 15.  Brilliantly, he posted this webcomic about his campaign in the style of XKCD, asking for donations to reach his goal of raising $26,000.  Last Wednesday, it hit Boing Boing.  Shortly thereafter, the web site was down due to mass traffic.  By two days later, the donations far exceeded his target, and people across the country are following his progress.

Guys like Paul Newell should learn from this guy about how to run an intern et campaign!  So what’s his secret?

A simplistic answer would just be that Tevis “understands the internet.”  He understands the power of an honest, witty, conversational blog.  He knows that people on the internet will self-organize around a good cause if it appeals to them.  This explanation totally ignores the mechanism of his success though.

Tevis’ campaign funding is ‘grassroots,’ but grassroots campaign financing works by harnessing class or identity interests.  Obama’s grassroots funding comes largely from the disposable income of his wine-track supporters.  Tevis’ funding comes from a narrower base.  It comes from readers of Boing Boing.  It comes from people who are turned on by an homage to XKCD.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has argued that as governments lose the ability to provide for the needs of their citizens, people will organize around other, non-national identities that give their lives meaning.  Somtimes these identities are tied to a particular region, like the Basque ethnic identity. But other identities, like the global feminist movement, and radical Islam, are indifferent to regional and state boundaries.

Tevis’ campaign funding illustrates the mobilization of the bearers of a new identity like these others–the identity shared by lots of the people who are active in the most forward-point parts of the web.  There is a strong culture there, with its own communicative style, aesthetic sensibility, and core politics.  I will call the bearers of this culture the ‘web class’ (although I don’t love the term and welcome alternative suggestions).

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps you think that the majority of the donors were rallying around a general progressive agenda, accessible to all?  I think the title of Cory Doctorow’s explosive shout out says it all:

Progressive geek looking for 3,000 people to help him win Kansas election against dinosauric anti-science/pro-surveillance dude

Yes, progressivism gets a mention.  But the clinching trifecta is:

  • Tevis is pro-science.  The web class loves science, because they know the internet owes everything to science and see the improvements science can make in their lives each day.
  • Tevis is anti-surveillance.  The web class is sensative to issues of surveillance and privacy because their day-to-day life is both highly exposed and at risk of digital attack.  The web class is constantly renegotiating what is public or private, and is loathe to lose control over that aspect of their lives.
  • Tevis is a geek.  “Geek” is entirely an identity label, that denotes a shared outlook of creative practicality, as well as an independence from/rejection by “the mainstream.”  The web class is largely constituted by geeks, and in this context the label is an honorific:  “He is one of us.”

Like Obama’s supporters, the web class is made up largely of young professionals and students who can spend their parents’ money.  I’m pretty sure a subset of them were what kept Ron Paul’s campaign alive for so long.  In addition, because geography is comparatively irrelvant to the web, it is just as irrelevant to web class politics.  (Several potential donors to Tevis’ campaign–for a Kansas state government position–were legally unable to because they weren’t U.S. citizens.)  This makes them an excellent base for remotely financing elections.  And if this sort of thing keeps up, then the web class will have some serious political clout across U.S. for the years to come.

Is this a good thing?

I’m ambivalent.  On principle, I object to the heavy role of money in politics, even if that money is ‘grassroots.’  In this case, the fact that most of Tevis’ donors are likely from out of state gives me additional worry.  On the other hand, I appreciate Tevis’ politics, and believe that, for example, the project of science and scientific education is one that transcends and supercedes the project of democratic legitimacy.  Part of me feels strongly that the web class should not hesitate to take politics into its own hands.  I will likely donate to his campaign anyway.  What do you think? Comments are very welcome.

Public vs. grassroots campaign financing (part 2)

If grassroots funding does not really solve the problem of campaign finance, then what other option is there?

Public campaign financing–where the state provides money for candidates to run–is the more traditional solution. If the state provides funding to qualified candidates irrespective of their political positions, then that means that only voter preferences will determine who will win office.

That’s how it works in theory, at least. In practice, there are several problems with the current public campaign financing systems, and especially our current presidential system.

One of those problems is qualification. Obviously, you can’t just give public campaign funding to everybody. But if the conditions of qualification reiterate the conditions for financing a private campaign, then public funding doesn’t help anybody. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens with the current presidential funding laws:

At the federal level, public funding is limited to subsidies for presidential candidates. To receive subsidies in the primary, candidates must qualify by privately raising $5000 each in at least 20 states. For qualified candidates, the government provides a dollar for dollar “match” from the government for each contribution to the campaign, up to a limit of $250 per contribution. In return, the candidate agrees to limit his or her spending according to a statutory formula.

This is lame. Contrast it with the Clean Elections financing system used in Maine, Arizona, and elsewhere. In this system, candidates qualify by getting some number of seed donations (commonly limited to $5) that demonstrate popular support. In systems like these, qualification correlates to voters, not dollars.

Public vs. grassroots campaign financing (part 1)

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).