In 2000, I was involved with a seed-stage startup looking to revolutionize campaign finance by moving it to the Internet. We didn’t quite succeed at that time and encountered a skepticism as to whether and to what degree that shift would happen.
There was a vision beyond that business plan (our customers were conventional politicians in the Democratic and Republican party). Using today’s terminology, it was also supposed to be a Kickstarter-like movement, making it easier for candidates — bypassing more conventional roads up the ladder — who represented movements to break through when enough people thought such momements should exist. Democracy — according to some definitions — should be the ideal forum for authentic talent for the people to emerge, bypassing the traditional smaller, and more conventional (cynical?) subset of kingmakers, deep pockets, and political insiders.
So after we failed, then came Howard Dean in 2004 and his short time in front of the pack, in part fueled by his Internet fundraising. This showed there was something to the thesis, but it was just a ray peeking through the clouds of conventional campaigning. In 2008, with Obama’s massive success with fundraising on the Web, and the defeat of the invincible Hillary and then McCain, there was a vindication as Internet fundraising became major. And there are other examples where the Internet arguably looks like it has played a major part in changing the game — think Tea Party, MoveOn, Ron Paul, and potentially the Santorum candidacy and playing a thorn in the side of Romney for longer than expected.
But consider these observations from this election cycle, and you realize it has not changed. The internet fundraising has become as inauthentic as direct mail. It’s meant to elicit a Pavlovian response — have dinner with George Clooney, Barack Obama is a socialist, etc. etc. It too often amplifies the worst knee-jerk tendencies. It’s not often authentic or real.
But the internet, falling short of its potential, is dwarfed by even other more depressing changes in fundraising making politics even more about kingmakers, deep pockets, and political insiders. To matter now, at various presidential fundraisers I have seen, you must be a max donor — $35K (remember when $2300 meant something). That gets you a few minutes of intimate time with the President,while 15K or so gets you a picture, and 5K gets you attendance as part of a large crowd. And then as Lessig points out, this is just small beans to what is happening in today’s SuperPac world — 196 Americans have given 80% of SuperPac money, and single Americans — witness casino king Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich — have driven significant political campaigns.
The Internet, utilized correctly, should make politics passionate and alive; but, instead politics is largely becoming even more stagnant, even with the occasional examples of a refreshing oasis in the desert. I know there are forceful counter-arguments revealing my naivete: money is speech, fundraising whittles down candidates, plenty of candidates with money lose, you need to have a message even with money, and on and on. Some will say, the current system may be cynical, but it’s realistic and for the greater good. It’s hard to prove that is the case, but it’s hard to disprove it either.
Despite these arguments, my personal bottom-line comes down to this: it’s depressing. The power of the Internet in terms of giving people voices, disrupting middlemen and institutions, and organizing people in networks means we can do a lot better in the one area where perhaps it matters most — governing ourselves.