News & Politics

Hey, Democrats: 8 Steps to End Your Toxic Fundraising Habits

Al Franken got my donation, but dozens of other fundraising emails went straight into my trash bin.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Scott Leman

I’ve always respected the importance of elections, but the receipt of hundreds of fundraising emails has driven me to the brink of political despair. Seemingly all written and designed by the same consultant, they have as much sincerity as the phony pitches about millions of dollars waiting for me in a Nigerian bank account, or the diet plans from a friend’s hacked computer.

On January 18 I got this email from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

"Daniel — once again, radical Tea Partiers in the Senate have opted for obstruction over helping the American people. 

Just this past week, they blocked an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for those families hit hardest by the Great Recession. We want to raise $10,000 this month to open up the year — can you give $5 or more right now?"

The same day a Democratic congresswoman exhorted me:

"Click here to automatically add your name and stand up for protecting women’s rights."

From Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz:

"I want to have the chance to say thank you in person, which is why we're flying one supporter like you, as well as a guest, to D.C. later this month. We’ll take care of your flight and hotel and even take you on a tour of the city so chip in $10 or whatever you can to be automatically entered."

And there were literally six emails asking me to sign a petition wishing Michelle Obama a happy 50th birthday. Obviously Michelle Obama will never notice whether or not I sign such a generic birthday card. The purpose of the "petition" gimmick is to aggregate email addresses to use as targets for future fundraising pitches.

Two mornings later, on the Martin Luther King holiday, I received almost identically worded emails from four Democratic House members, each with a blue-lettered link asking me to "share your thoughts with me on my Facebook page." What are the chances that any of them are interested in my thoughts about Dr. King?

By the way, if Harry Reid and the Democrats had ended all abuse of the filibuster, the extended unemployment benefits wouldn’t have been "blocked." Of course if the Senate had passed it, there is a very good chance that John Boehner wouldn't have let it come to the House floor or that if it did, the Democrats might not have gotten enough Republicans to go along to pass it. We’ll never know.

To be clear, I don't want the Republicans to control the Senate, but Reid’s email ignores the reality of what it will take for the Senate to function in the interests of a majority of Americans. It makes me think that the consultant who wrote it for him thinks I’m stupid—never a great way to build enthusiasm among your base.

A booming cottage industry seems to have arisen in response to the right-wing and libertarian oligarchs who are intent on distorting America’s rickety electoral system to promote their own narrow self-interest and/or their fanatic, undemocratic ideology. Its members bombard progressives with emails asking us to send in campaign contributions to help stop the terrifying Republican demagogue du jour: Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, buffoons who talk about "legitimate rape," and anything supported by the focus group-tested villains the Tea Party and the Koch brothers.

I want Republicans to have less power, not more, but the barrage of emails has not made me want to donate more money; rather, it makes me want to delete them as fast as I can while trying to control the dreadful feelings of resentment, cynicism and despair engendered by consultant patois.

Democrats did not lose control of the House of Representatives in 2010 because there were more Republican votes. They lost because millions of people who had been inspired by Barack Obama’s campaign had concluded that their votes didn’t actually affect the things that mattered to them and thus stayed home. The Washington beltway name for this syndrome was the "enthusiasm gap." The fundraising culture is far more a part of the problem than it is the solution.

Algorithm-intoxicated consultants can high-five each other if they come up with scare language that gets a response from 1 of 100 instead of 1 out of 1,000 (assuming the rate of positive response is even that high). Their compensation and reputation is based on how much money they raise with no regard for the consequences of the burnout they engender with 99-plus percent of recipients. Most recipients are turned off by self-referential campaign prose. Few of us who are motivated by issues such as climate change, American empire and under-regulated banks are psyched by fundraising pie-charts.

Howie Klein’s indispensable blog Down With Tyranny.com (DWT) has long pointed out that many Democratic congressional campaign leaders (particularly those at the DCCC) use progressive language in fundraising emails, but then often subvert genuinely progressive Democratic candidates in favor of corporate Democrats.

DWT recently published a compelling piece by "Anonymous Operative," a Washington campaign insider. The author points out that donors are exploited by consultants whose primary agenda is often their own fees. In this respect some ostensibly liberal hacks are just as cynical as the right-wing groups who lined their pockets with millions from gullible conservatives promising to "end Obamacare."

But even when written by consultants, candidates or public interest group leaders who are pure of heart and paid appropriately (as many indeed are), most email fundraising, as currently practiced, is counter-productive.

For example, Sherrod Brown, whose progressive credentials are impeccable, sent this recent email:

"The Koch brothers, and the special interest groups under their control, are already spending millions to buy elections. 

We must remember what we learned two years ago. The best way to fight back against special interests is with strong grassroots organizing. I want to kick off the new election year in a strong position by raising $25,000 by Jan. 31. Can you help with $5 or more?"

Underneath was a thermometer-like graphic showing how far toward the goal Sherrod was, followed by the ubiquitous blue "donate" button.

The whole idea of making a small donation to a candidate is to express idealism. To avoid continued erosion of enthusiasm there needs to be a major effort to address the cognitive dissonance of using a detestable system to change things the current money system propagates. It’s not easy to deal with these kinds of contradictions, and in the meantime we don't want to unilaterally disarm. But persistently ignoring one of the central problems of American politics is one of the primary causes of the "enthusiasm gap." No issue got more visibility and support from Occupy Wall Street than getting money out of politics. If Democrats want to avoid the kind of despair that motivated Ralph Nader voters in 2000 they need to respect the revulsion so many progressives feel about the fundraising system, rather than engage in incessant rah-rah emails with fundraising statistics.

Here are some simple changes that would reduce alienation:

  1. Stop the faux hysteria about the meaningless "deadlines." By incessantly crying wolf about deadlines that don't really matter (except maybe for the self-aggrandizement of a consultant), these pitches add to the perception that all politicians are interchangeable con artists.
  2. No more "matching funds." This gimmick signals shallow hype, the opposite of what you want when you are trying to appeal to idealism and altruism. Anyone whose donation is dependent on other people matching them is a dilettante.
  3. No more phony petitions. I asked a progressive senator about the strategic purpose of ads he’d placed on a number of progressive blogs about overturning Citizen’s United, expecting a coordinated congressional effort on the subject. He sheepishly told me that the sole purpose was to get a bigger email list for fundraising purposes. If you want my email address, just ask for it.
  4. If you don't know me, please don’t address me by my first name. Also, don't sign with your first name and don’t ask me how my holidays were. This shtick may have worked 50 years ago, but now it feels like the tired tool of a used car salesman.
  5. No more raffles for five-minute conversations with the President, plane flights etc. Lotteries are for suckers. You are supposed to be inspiring us.
  6. Be transparent about where the money is going. Charities have to reveal how much of their money is for overhead, compensation to their executives, and the amount that actually goes for direct services. Candidates for office should do the same.
  7. Less is more. There are some candidates such as Congressman Alan Grayson who make the effort to add a few sentences of intelligent policy analysis to their pitches, but they still rely on a lot of other aspects of the fundraising spam formula. In order not to totally degrade the relationship between politicians, activists and their public, there just need to be fewer emails. Like any diet, this will be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking at first but it’s vital for long-term health.
  8. Most importantly, every single pitch for money for elections should explicitly acknowledge that our campaign system is seriously compromised and that the role of money in politics must change and that such a change is a priority of the candidate or organization. They should specify the particular remedy the candidate supports. So what that it’s conventional wisdom that it’s impossible to change the role of money in politics? It was recently conventional wisdom to suggest that gay rights was a loser for Democrats. The way to change an awful status quo is morally grounded repetition.

One positive example: This same January I got an email from Sen. Al Franken. Franken is no slouch as a fundraiser and he is facing a tough re-election campaign this November, yet this email had neither a petition nor any reference to the Tea Party nor a "donate" button. It had facts about Medicare, what was wrong with the Paul Ryan, and what needs to be improved:

"The only reason Medicare doesn’t negotiate for better prices is — get this — it's literally against the law for the government to negotiate to get a better deal. That's an actual law that Washington politicians passed. It's a huge giveaway to big drug companies that don't need the help, and it makes zero sense — especially when getting rid of that rule could save us up to $240 billion over ten years."

I went on Franken’s campaign website and made a contribution.