Big money is still strangling the Democrats

Big checks and consulting deals matter more to Dem elites than winning elections

Big money.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Democrats are giddy with optimism over their rosy prospects in the 2018 midterms. But the schism between the left and centrist wings of the party could still cost the party dearly this fall, as Ryan Grim and Lee Fang explain in a brilliant piece of reporting for The Intercept.

The division is not so specifically about ideology as it is money. The centrist wing of the party tends to highly prioritize big-dollar fundraising, to a frankly corrupt degree. This has downsides both ideologically and in terms of competence. In short, big-donor money is still strangling the party.

We learned last year from former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile that the national Democratic Party is simply suffused with white-collar graft. Democratic elites conduct constant big-dollar fundraising, and have a cozy revolving-door relationship with various consultants. (The same can be said of GOP elites too, of course.) Both groups' concern with producing positive social change is a far distant second place behind their concern with maintaining a hammerlock on the party machinery and keeping the gravy train flowing.

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Grim and Fang demonstrate similar things happening with candidates for state and congressional races. They describe the "Rolodex check," whereby a potential candidate is expected to flip through their cell phone contact list and come up with donors worth $250,000 or more, or be written off by the DCCC. The party establishment has been lining up behind 2018 candidates with a proven track record of fundraising success but electoral failure, like Christina Hartman, who raised a record $1.15 million running in Pennsylvania's 16th district, but came in significantly behind even Hillary Clinton's weak showing in 2016.

Even EMILY's List — a group specifically dedicated to getting pro-choice women elected — is supporting Hartman against insurgent Jess King, a populist-leaning woman who has much more progressive views on women's rights. Why? The experience of Karen Mallard, a teacher running in the primary for Virginia's 2nd district, may be instructive. She couldn't get the group's support over two different male opponents: "EMILY's List gave me some consultants to hire, but I'm a public school teacher. I can't afford to hire anybody," she told The Intercept.

After the two men dropped out, the group settled on a different, well-connected woman primary candidate. Thus do the consultant dollars keep flowing to party insiders.

Overall numbers are hard to come by, since campaign disclosure rules have been sharply rolled back over the years, and the 2018 race is in its infancy. The DCCC raised over $105 million in 2017, the majority of it coming from big donors like Soros Fund Management and candidate committees. Nancy Pelosi, consistently House Dems' best fundraiser, rolled up over $3 million with three quick dinners with rich people in San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Now to be fair, a substantial chunk of that $105 million total did come from individual donors: 2.8 million people made contributions under $200 last year, according to internal figures. But even here, the warped consultant mentality shines through. The DCCC emails are legendarily horrible and manipulative — using "churn and burn" fearmongering strategies that squeeze money out of people while rapidly shedding subscribers instead of trying to actually build support for some policy.

This sort of corruption is quite different from the old Tammany Hall-style version, where jobs and contracts were doled out as explicit political favors. Where the old political bosses had no illusions about what was going on, the modern consultant class — the product of elite schools and raised from birth to believe in meritocracy — generally believes their own shtick. Their naked self-interest and bourgeois ideology is camouflaged behind a technocratic facade of just doing "what it takes to win" — but it's a facade they generally believe wholeheartedly.

If anything, the modern version of corruption is worse than the Tammany method. Old-fashioned political machines at least had the virtue of handing out tangible benefits to their voting blocs (like jobs, or the famous Tammany turkey baskets). And when graft lost them elections, as it frequently did, there was no denying it.

Today, by contrast, actual voters are totally closed out of the gravy train. And even when the party has been absolutely steamrolled at the polls — bobbling a lay-up election to a reality show buffoon and landing in the worst electoral position in 80 years — centrist party elites can continue to deny they had anything to do with it, so as to preserve their power and income. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about elite resistance to reform during ancien régime France, "The rich and privileged, when also corrupt and incompetent, do not accept rescuing reform."

Ideologically, the laser focus on big-dollar fundraising pulls the party to the right. As Grim and Fang write:

Because the key variable that decides party support is fundraising, the DCCC's decision-making is often ideological in its result, even if that was not the intent. By focusing on dollars, the party winds up with medical device executives, rather than American government teachers or football coaches. [The Intercept]

Ironically, some of the more leftist candidates have proven to be quite adept fundraisers themselves, relying on small-dollar networks instead of a few rich people and corporations, as Bernie Sanders showed could be done.

All in all, it's no surprise that an entire alternative infrastructure is springing up to support Democrats who aren't plugged into the party apparatus — with groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, Our Revolution, and Justice Democrats. It seems those people will have to rescue elite Democrats from themselves — especially when it comes to actually governing.

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