Democrats' unexpected money problem

Despite the trainwreck presidency of Donald J. Trump, the Democratic Party is having trouble fundraising. And the reason is simple: trust.

Alms for the poor?
(Image credit: Illustrated | Image courtesy iStock)

The trainwreck presidency of Donald J. Trump continues, as it must. Most recently, the president is preparing to ban transgender soldiers from the military, and has picked a big fight with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for no reason. With all the failure, bigotry, infighting, and Trump's crashing popularity, Democrats are anticipating big pickups in the 2018 midterms — possibly big enough to overcome Republican electoral shenanigans.

But they are running into a money problem, and from an unexpected source: small donors. Overall, the Republican National Committee is out-raising the Democratic National Committee by roughly 2-1. Some of that is probably to be expected, given the Republican advantage among the ultra-rich — but the RNC is also winning among small donors by nearly 50 percent. It's a problem driven by the blinkered elitism of the Democratic establishment.

Still, it is particularly odd given the fact that Bernie Sanders — who has effectively become the party's main figurehead through lack of competition, if nothing else — got tremendous amounts of small dollar fundraising during his primary campaign. At the time, Democratic Party officials were slavering over that fact, figuring that if he would just give up his email list, they could get in on the party (and keep those consultant contracts flowing).

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But they failed to understand the reason why Sanders got so much small donor cash. The reason is trust.

The fundamental political characteristic of the moment is overwhelming backlash to the status quo. People hate both parties, they hate the leadership of both parties, and they hate the sitting president — whoever it may be. Some of this is pure racism, misogyny, or xenophobia, especially in reaction to the first black president. But at least an equal portion is due to the abysmal economic performance of the last eight years. Wall Street banks wrecked the economy and got hundreds of billions in free cash and trillions in cheap loans; ordinary homeowners got nine million illegal foreclosures and a lousy job market.

To this day the Great Recession has not ended. Growth since the crisis has been the worst in postwar history, inequality and corporate profits remain at or near record highs, while wages are growing slightly if at all. Somewhat akin to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of America is seized with an epidemic of "diseases of despair" — alcoholism, opioid addiction, suicide, and concomitant increasing mortality.

That sort of abysmal situation is highly risky to an incumbent party. (Witness the 2010 Democratic wipeout, or any of a dozen European parties in power during the eurozone crisis.)

President Obama managed to skate over the backlash and win re-election through a few key policies, an easy opponent, and the fact that he is the greatest American political talent in generations. By contrast, Sanders (who is not so talented) actually validated the backlash and ran a campaign promising to overturn the status quo — and backed it up with a highly unusual voting history that was just as heterodox as his promises. As a result, he is by most measures the most popular working politician today.

Therefore, one major factor hurting the DNC fundraising is how Democratic Party elites, especially President Obama, connived behind the scenes to keep Sanders' ally Keith Ellison out of the DNC chair. That frankly dirty and underhanded maneuvering signaled to Sanders' left-wing supporters that elite Democrats were only interested in them insofar as they were an obedient source of votes and cash. So they took their money elsewhere.

Democrats' strategic blindness is perhaps even more visible in the cynical contempt that saturates their fundraising emails and mailers, as Michael Whitney (who helped with Sanders' primary fundraising) argues. Democrats' elitism combined with their fetish worship of empiricism has produced the most obnoxious fundraising asks in American history, with endless histrionic declarations of MAJOR COLLAPSE and WE'RE DOOMED, because that gets people to open the mailing and donate. Recently, they've taken it even further, by sending emails and letters at the end of the month that are marked to look like late bills.

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Apparently this kind of horrifying stuff works pretty well on an individual basis. But it is an overtly manipulative strategy that signals contempt for the donor as a witless chump to be pumped for cash and then ignored, instead of a fellow citizen deserving of an honest argument. Using fear tactics for quick cash also tends to foreclose putting forth a positive vision for what Democrats will do to fix the country's problems.

Republicans have tried such manipulation before, but as Whitney demonstrates, under Trump they have mostly ditched such tactics and copied from the Sanders playbook, to their manifest benefit. (And in any case, Republicans rarely struggle to raise money.)

If Democrats want small donors to join up en masse (let alone vote or volunteer for campaigns), they must earn their trust. The Democratic leadership is among the all-time greatest political failures in American history, and the Democratic Party brand remains in the toilet. Recognizing that toxic association with the despised status quo, and giving American citizens the dignity of an honest argument about how they will fix it — instead of treating them like sheep to be sheared — is a good place to begin.

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