The Hotline, the uber-insider journal of Beltway conventional thought, claims today to have a scandalous scoop of "opposition" research on Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D). Are you ready for this? There's a YouTube video of Obama asking a working class crowd in Cleveland for - gasp! - small campaign contributions. Obama, the Hotline breathlessly recounts, dares to ask "everybody here to pony up five dollars, ten dollars for this campaign. I don't care how poor you are, you've got five dollars."
The real scandal, of course, is the shock that emanates from the Beltway when a major political candidate has the audacity to ask regular people to be a big part of a presidential campaign. Washington would like us to believe that there is only one way to run campaigns these days: by getting a bunch of corporate lobbyists from D.C. and a few super-rich people from New York and Hollywood into a few ballrooms to bundle tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. It's government of, by and for Big Money - a Smokybackroom-ocracy - and any other model is seen as a big scandal. If you are wondering why so many politicians sound like Halliburton press flacks or ExxonMobil PR representatives, and why the entire political debate could be dominated by the comments of a Hollywood billionaire to the New York Times' glorified gossip columnist, look no further: it's because of this innately corrupt model, and the media's glorification of it.
But there is another model that very few people talk about - the one where lots of working people give lots of small dollar contributions. People like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) have been doing this for years. Howard Dean did it in his presidential primary run. It's a much harder path, of course, because it's much harder to organize lots of people than it is to organize a few wealthy fat cats. But in the absence of public financing of elections, campaigns that try to rely on lots of little contributions are the next closest thing to a small-d democratic election system.
Let me excerpt from the end of my book Hostile Takeover to expand on this point:
"After getting through a book that details and decries the financial pressures ordinary Americans are under, you may be wondering: 'How am I now reading a call for ordinary Americans to shell out money to politicians?' The answer is pretty simple: until we get publicly financed elections, money will play a big role in politics, and that means ordinary Americans have one of two choices: we can continue to not contribute anything to political candidates, essentially walking off the field and forefeiting. Or, we can hold our nose and play in an albeit unfair game. The latter is clearly the better choice - at least then we have a chance to win a victory here and there, and make our presence felt, especially if we are smart about where we spend limited resources. There is no rule that says politics, even in our corrupt system, has to be so thoroughly dominated by a few very large contributors (though those large contributors will always be somewhat powerful). Groups like Moveon.org are flipping this smoky backroom model on its head, gathering a very large group of contributors who each give just a little bit. Such a model doesn't require regular folks to cough up hundreds of dollars. On the contrary, if millions of people kicked in $5 or $10 we might have a whole different country. Getting more people to contribute small sums of money to political causes will require a change in mindset. As political fundraiser Chris Gruwell says, we need to look at political giving in the same way we look at the basket that comes around at our place of worship. We chip in what we can, no matter how modest, because we believe in the charity work that our money funds. That is the way we need to think about supporting good people running for office, because government can have as big if not bigger effects on society than almost any other institution."
Let's be clear - big donors and philanthropists will always play a role in politics - and some of them play an extremely constructive role (personal example: the Progressive States Network could never have gotten off the ground without generous support from some visionary philanthropists). But the idea that its somehow scandalous for candidates or organizations to ask regular working stiffs to ALSO financially buy into a movement is a false construct designed to rationalize plutocracy.
Though Obama certainly has his share of Big Money interests funneling money to his operation, I'm thrilled to see that he's drawing on his community organizing roots to - at least in public appeals - try to bring working people into the part of presidential campaigns too often left exclusively to the fat cats. That folks in the Beltway see this as "controversial" is only a commentary on how many in the nation's capital truly believe politics should be the exclusive gated community of the rich and famous.