by Tommy Christopher
Bernie's fundraising achievements are impressive and laudable, but not without flaws.
If not for the ascendancy of Donald Trump and the amazing spectacle of a walking, talking sentient wad of used wet toilet paper named Ted Cruz, the story of this election season would be the individual-donor fundraising of Bernie Sanders, who makes Ron Paul's "money bombs" look like burnt, unpopped kernels of Jiffy Pop. Even in this crowded field of amazement that includes former future First Woman President and Future Former First Woman President Hillary Clinton and the world's first female hypothetical potential vice president, Bernie's achievement stands tall. He has earned the right to brag about it every 27 seconds.
There are some downsides to the Bernie Sanders model, however, that have gone largely unexamined by the media, mainstream, pro-Hillary, conservative, or otherwise. I don't want to diminish Sanders' accomplishment, but the context in which he and his supporters place it demands to be challenged. Their theory of the case is that raising money exclusively from small donors is not only a de facto good ensuring more representative influence on politics, but a model for political revolution that can upend the entire political system in this country, as enunciated by Dr. Paul Song in his "Democratic whores" rant when he advised replacing all of them with "Berniecrats."
There has also been the constant, explicit charge that anyone who doesn't raise money this way, which is no one, is automatically corrupt and unable to be trusted to fight for "the people."
I think we can all agree that to the degree it is possible, getting big money out of politics is a positive thing, but the first Sanders assumption I would challenge is that it's the most important thing, and if you listen to Bernie's speeches, practically the only important thing. There are many more urgent and more easily fixed ways in which our democracy is distorted and subverted, starting with the Voting Rights Act.
If I could wave a magic wand and fix one thing, it wouldn't be campaign finance, it would be voter turnout. If everyone in America were required to vote, there'd never be another Republican president. If we fixed gerymandering, there'd never be another Republican House. If we stopped giving small states outsize representation in the Senate, if we fixed our primary calendars so they didn't force candidates to pander to white lunatics, if we didn't leave our citizens' voting rights up to a roll of the geographic dice, it wouldn't matter how much money these people raised. All of those things I mentioned would be easier than getting big money out of politics. To hear Bernie Sanders tell it, everything was hunky-dory before Citizens United.
That's why, while I agree Citizens United needs to be overturned, the issue doesn't animate me the way it does Sanders' devotees.
I also think Bernie errs significantly and dishonestly in his binary presentation. This is especially evident when he calls Hillary Clinton's campaign apparatus "the most powerful political machine in history," as if the Koch brothers aren't about to spend a billion dollars to defeat her.
It is here that I'd like to narrow my focus on this expansive topic, because the contrast that Bernie draws with Hillary is the most hotly-contested point in this primary. Even Hillary advocates like George Clooney apologetically explain the necessity of competing in this Koch-Adelson-Friess-et-al environment, but I think there's a case to be made that even in a hard-money-only world, I'd take Hillary's fundraising model over Bernie's any day.
I do agree with Bernie that large donors don't spend money without expecting something in return, but there are at least three dynamics at work.
The first is the one Bernie envisions, that the politicians follow the money, they adjust their positions to fit whatever will get them the most donations. He's been unable or unwilling to give an example of that, but presses the case nonetheless.
The second is that the money follows the politician, that wealthy individuals and corporations give money to candidates whose positions already align with their own. As Clooney points out, not everything wealthy individuals and corporations do is evil. For example, it is wealthy corporations who have brought discriminatory state laws to their knees faster than any activists could.
Finally, there are wealthy donors who give to both parties as a hedge, mainly to ensure at least some level of access.
In Hillary's case, I believe it is mostly the latter two, but will grant that over time, a bit of the former has crept in. Hillary emerged onto the shore of her own political career from a sea of corporatist Democrats, led by her husband, whom I have always believed embraced "pro-business" policies as much to stop getting clobbered by Reagan-era Republicans as to advance those interests. It's the sort of compromise that is shot through the Bill Clinton years, the bad bargain that Democrats will fight a rear-guard action against social conservatism if they can just hold onto power by mollifying their most formidable opposition.
That milieu certainly seems to have influenced Hillary strategically, as it did many Democrats, including President Obama. Most Democrats who want to get elected have to dress their policies in pro-capitalist drag, but in Obama's case, the underlying goal was to achieve more progressive goals, and Hillary has followed in those footsteps. They both triangulated on health care, and Obama even ran to Hillary's right on the individual mandate, but they achieved monumental reforms.
Many liberals, myself included, blame corporate interests for the fact that there was no public option included in the Affordable Care Act, but that wasn't a function of influence over Obama, there just wasn't even enough Democratic support to pass a public option.
That's flaw number one with Bernie's political revolution, because you're only as strong as your 60 weakest links in the Senate and 218 weakest links in the House. After you've given $27 bucks to Bernie an average of three or four times (so call it $80), you've then got to pony up for 278 Berniecrats in Congress and God-knows-how-many in state and local legislatures and executive offices. That gets pretty expensive. There's no reason for anyone to believe that Bernie's tremendous small-donor fundraising can be duplicated or sustained throughout our political system.
Flaw number two is that even if you could duplicate it, it's clearly not enough. Bernie's miraculous fundraising has bought him a close second in this presidential primary race, but even if he were to get the nomination, he would be outspent 10 to 1 or worse by Republicans. That's no guarantee they'd win, but Bernie's whole point here is that raising this money will help him win, so getting crushed in fundraising can't be a positive.
Flaw number three is that even if "middle-class families" had the extra money to give all those Berniecrats, and even if that meant they'd win, where are all these candidates who would be as incorruptible as Bernie Sanders, and not take any money from any other source? According to Susan Sarandon, there won't be another one in her lifetime. I think she's exaggerating, but there aren't 278 of them, let alone enough to flip statehouses.
Flaw number four, though, is the most important one to the current election, and one which has only recently become evident. I firmly believe that Bernie is in that first category, that the money finds him, that he attracts donations for positions he consistently holds. Put a pin in the gun shit, I'll get to that in a minute.
So even if you get millions of people to magically shit out billions of dollars to mythical Berniecrats, what you end up with is candidates who, if they manage to win, are even more beholden to their donors than Democratic whores. Obama and Hillary can cross their wealthy donors (at least a little bit) and survive. The waning days of Bernie Sanders' campaign have demonstrated that he doesn't dare cross his donors, all 2 or 3 million of them, even a little bit.
It's not just his policies, although despite adding things to the menu along the way, every campaign speech remains focused solely on his millionaires and billionaires platform. His repeated refusal to denounce the outrageous actions of his surrogates and supporters, or to weakly and equivocally denounce them when he does, is proof positive that Bernie Sanders is acutely aware upon which side of the bread his millions of pats of butter are smeared.
That's a great thing if you're a white millennial who lives with your Hillary-supporting parents, or a movie star with a great purse dog, but not if you're anyone else. What the Bernie movement misses is that to the degree politicians like President Obama and Hillary are "beholden" to wealthy donors, they're also beholden to voters who don't give them a dime.
Whether or not you "trust" Hillary to follow through on her commitment to things like protecting Roe or restoring the Voting Rights Act or enacting policing and criminal justice reforms or fighting for gun control or protecting and improving on the Affordable Care Act or working toward immigration reform, the voters decide, in at least equal measure to her large donors, whether or not she has to do those things. The voters have made Obama and Hillary move on things. Listen to a Bernie Sanders speech. He hasn't moved since 1988.
In fact, the only evidence I've seen that Bernie can be moved by voters who probably don't give him a dime is in the area of gun control, where he has very few lapses, to be clear, but which he himself chalks up to the fact that he's from "a rural state." Those pro-gun voters were at least something of a check on Bernie's positions on a handful of occasions.
If Bernie wins the presidency and appoints Elizabeth Warren to the Supreme Court and she overturns Citizens United next February, we're back to a hard-money-only system, and that means that most people in this country, the people that Hillary and Obama say they're fighting for, will still be priced out of the political revolution.
All Bernie is suggesting is transferring power from one group of white people to another, larger group of white people. If I'm going to tilt at an impossible dream, that ain't the one.