The Problem with Sanders’s Small Donors

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in New York City, March 2, 2019. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
He is now winning the money race, thanks to activists. But do we want voters on the fringe setting a party’s course?

Joe Biden’s entry into the Democratic primary sets up what looks to be an epic clash of septuagenarians, as he and Bernie Sanders battle for the nomination. It’s anybody guess who will wins — could be Joe, could be Bernie, could be one of the other 900,000 candidates — but it seems that these two see each other as the main contenders.

During his first 24 hours in the race, Biden raised more than $6 million, more than any other Democrat in the same time period. According to the New York Times, this was an important target for his campaign:

Mr. Biden’s team had viewed his early fund-raising as an important metric by which his nascent candidacy would be measured. His campaign sent multiple emails asking for donations on Thursday, his first day in the race, and he attended a high-dollar fund-raiser in the evening.

This number was slightly higher than Sanders’s $5.9 million haul, which was exactly the point.

These numbers are entirely self-reported, so it is hard to know whom Biden is raising the money from. However, the average contribution per donor was $65, higher than Sanders’s $35 contribution per donor. This indicates that Biden is collecting more high-dollar donations, as suggested by Biden’s attending a fundraiser hosted by Comcast’s chief lobbyist. This prompted a not-so-subtle rebuke from Sanders on the day of Biden’s announcement:

It’s a big day in the Democratic primary. Not with a fundraiser in the home of a corporate lobbyist, but with an overwhelming number of individual donations in response to today’s news. Contribute before midnight. It would mean A LOT to our campaign.

Sanders’s response reveals an interesting subtext to his clash with Biden: How shall politics be funded? Both sides are obviously looking for as many small-dollar donations as possible, but Biden is not exclusively financing his campaign that way. He is also drawing funds from major interest groups that, like Comcast, always have business before the government.

It’s no wonder that Sanders is eager to play up this contrast. Given the exorbitant costs of campaigns, donors are collectively going to exercise outsized control over candidates, so whom would you rather have funding your candidate — the special interests or the people? Biden, clearly sensitive to this line of attack, made a point to emphasize that he had nearly 100,000 donors, about two-thirds of whom had never given to a campaign before. But still, it is pretty clear that Biden is the candidate of the wealthy establishment.

I hate this method of funding campaigns, which I call the conflict-of-interest model. It’s been around more or less since the 1880s. After patronage began to be outlawed, the parties began appealing to the massive industrial interests that had sprung up over the previous generation. The corporate titans gave to politics not out of the kindness of their own hearts, but to acquire access to government that the average person does not possess. This kind of financing strikes at the core of our republican ideal that every citizen should be equal as far as the government is concerned — and since the Progressive era (from the 1890s to the 1920s), there have been countless efforts to bring the “special interests” to heel.

The emergence of the Internet has created a legitimate alternative, which Sanders is making the most of. Rather than a politics financed by special interests, Sanders is drawing funds from an army of local activists, whose commitment to the cause induces them to chip in $20 here or $40 there. Taken individually, the activists cannot compete with lobbyists from the telecommunications or health-care industries, but their numbers are so vast that, in sum, they can propel Sanders into the front of the money race.

Call me a contrarian, but I have my doubts about this mode of financing, too. Again, stipulating that donors have access or influence that average voters do not possess, is it really better for activists to be the main source of finance? Corporate lobbyists are going to invest in politics for their stockholders’ interests, but activists have a wide array of ideological views that are often out of step with the rest of society. The Sanders voters in particular are far to the left of the average American — and probably the average Democrat, too.

We complain so much about political polarization these days, and I think with good reason. But to what extent does the polarization in the last generation lead back to this revolution in campaign finance? Are grassroots extremists pulling candidates to the ideological fringes by increments of $20 apiece? It’s very possible.

All of this speaks to some inconvenient truths that Americans have failed to fully grok: Politics is very expensive, somebody has to pay for it, and whoever does is going to get special access. Who do we want those persons to be? Special interests, activists, somebody else? We collectively don’t know, as we tend not to think much at all about campaign finance. Maybe if a socialist captures the Democratic nomination this cycle, we’ll think a little more clearly about whether we want our local hippies bankrolling politics.

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