The explosion of political contributions from small donors is often celebrated and touted as one of the few positive developments among all the problems facing the democratic reform movement.
Not so fast, says Richard Pildes, a professor at New York University School of Law. In one new try published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, it argues that the proliferation of modest candidate contributions may contribute to greater political polarization and, at the very least, requires further examination.
Pildes also says that proposals to promote more donations from small donors that are part of the House Democrats’ comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.
“Small donors are seen as purifying forces that will reduce political corruption and the influence of large donors, make politics more responsive to the ‘average’ citizen, and encourage broader political participation,” he writes, describing the increase online donations to presidents and congressional candidates for amounts below $200, the threshold for full disclosure of a donor’s identity.
“As we now worry about whether democracy as a whole can survive the internet, many believe the internet can guide us to salvation when it comes to the role of money in elections,” he said. he writes. “The question posed here is whether the concerns that have emerged about the internet and democracy should suddenly disappear when it comes to fundraising, or whether we need to think more about how those same concerns might also apply to the empowerment of small donors through the Internet.
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The increase in the number of people giving small amounts is a fairly recent phenomenon, starting in 2004 with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, and then increasing dramatically during Barack Obama’s two campaigns.
In time for last year’s midterm elections, the small-donor phenomenon spilled over into congressional races, with Democratic candidates benefiting more than Republicans. Democratic Senate candidates raised more than a quarter of their funds from small donors and the party’s House candidates raised 16% of their money this way.
Much of the credit goes to ActBlue, a Democratic-backed online donation platform, which Republicans have now replicated with WinRed.
Pildes points out that the number of small donors has now become a criterion that Democratic presidential candidates must meet to qualify for televised debates. But, he says, it actually costs some of these candidates more to attract these small donors than the amount they raise.
Of most concern, he said, is whether the growth of small donors contributes to political polarization. A major study, he said, found that small donors contribute more to ideologically extreme candidates than other individual donors.
For the professor, a worrying aspect of HR 1 passed by the House but blocked by the Senate — and similar proposals made by some Democratic presidential candidates — is the idea of providing matching federal funds to candidates based on their success with small contributions. Doing so, he argued, could exacerbate the negative impact of small donations.
He concludes that proponents of small grants are so focused on one dimension of a problem that they “may develop tunnel vision that obscures the costs of their reforms on other dimensions of democracy.”
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