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It is not the money. It is what it does.

Abu El-Haj argues that not all money in politics is created equal. Some political spending amplifies the voices of the super-wealthy few. But money invested in building sustainable political consciousness and voter engagement is money well spent from a democratic standpoint.

  • Tabatha Abu El-Haj
June 11, 2018

Purchasing power, not money, drives the unsavory politics of the New Gilded Age. This distinction is critically important to recognize—especially for liberals who are hoping for a Democratic wave in 2018 and a remobilization of the Obama voters who were absent in 2016. The super wealthy exercise outsized political influence. The current Supreme Court is extremely unlikely to reverse Citizens United and other deregulatory decisions. As such, the only feasible solution is to re-empower ordinary Americans in politics. And that will require money.

“Money in politics” has become an unfortunate shorthand for what is wrong with contemporary American politics. It is not the presence of money, or even the amount of money, in elections that is at the root of our dysfunctional politics. It is the ease with which extremely wealthy individuals and corporations exchange their economic capital for political influence. Washington has become a swamp in which moneyed interests use their purchasing power (in secret but also openly) to vindicate their own narrow interests. Meanwhile, the electoral process appears incapable of reining in legislators when their policymaking choices deviate from the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans.

Efforts to undercut the political influence that money buys—not just in the electoral sphere, but more importantly with respect to policymaking—depend on, among many things, a citizenry that is organized and an electorate that is representative and turns out regularly for both primaries and general elections. In fact, while the public (and election lawyers) are preoccupied with the flow of money into elections since Citizens United, a good number of political scientists attribute our current crisis of representation to a fundamental weakening of civil society that predates that decision.

A 2004 report by the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy underscored the degree to which the solicitude of government officials to the preferences of wealthy citizens results from these citizens’ increasing organizational advantage. With the demise of private-sector unionism and the fading of class-integrated, mass-membership associations, middle-class Americans today are only about a third as likely as the affluent to belong to an organization that takes a stand on public issues. Indeed, while the super wealthy increasingly orbit in close-knit social and professional circles, ordinary Americans are increasingly socially disconnected from one another in ways that undermine their political power.

Thus, while the temptation is to bemoan the inevitable flow of money from unrepresentative super donors to political organizations, the fact is that money spent on building sustainable political consciousness and voter engagement is money well spent from a democratic standpoint. The critical question is exactly how the big money is being spent.

Not all voter mobilization efforts are equal where the goal is to counterbalance the influence of moneyed elites. Critics of BlackPAC—the super PAC that worked to help elect Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate in Alabama—got it wrong. BlackPAC accepts money from the political establishment and its disproportionately white, male donors, but who funds BlackPAC is much less important than how it spent its cash. BlackPAC successfully mobilized many members of the Obama coalition who had been absent from the 2016 election because its executive director, Adrianne Shropshire, decided to invest in sustainable, year-round voter engagement. Prioritizing face-to-face mobilization of non-voters, BlackPAC chose to fund local organizations like the Black Voters Matter Fund, a membership group, and Woke Vote, a local organization of students and church-going activists. By leveraging existing social capital, including that of entrenched institutions like Black churches and historically Black colleges, BlackPAC and its allies succeeded in knocking on more than 520,000 doors. And they were not alone: Local chapters of the NAACP pledged to call every registered voter in the state who did not vote in 2016. Meanwhile, in Mobile, Alabama, local pastors organized congregation-wide robo-calls and used church events to register voters.

And the magic of voter engagement works beyond African-American communities, as Representative Conor Lamb’s special election upset in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district demonstrates. Like Jones’s, Lamb’s victory is a product of a personalized mobilization strategy in which local organizations took the lead. Grassroots groups—established and new—were ready to go even before Conor Lamb was nominated. These groups logged 3,000–4,000 face-to-face conversations each weekend, with volunteers focusing on their own neighborhoods where practical.

These two efforts worked because, as many social scientists understand, politics is deeply personal. Whether individuals engage civically and politically depends far more on social ties and social networks than on ideological commitment. Whether a voter knows and trusts an organizer, and whether the organizer knows what matters to that voter, will determine whether and what type of action the voter takes. As one observer in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district has noted, it was “conversations with friends [that] reeled people back when polarization loomed” and it was pre-existing relationships between union members that reassured wavering friends to vote for a Democrat.

It is no wonder, then, that locally run, face-to-face mobilization efforts, like the one funded by BlackPAC, are the gold standard of voter mobilization. More importantly, unlike TV advertisements or mass mailings (whether traditional or digital), peer-to-peer strategies offer an array of second-order returns by deepening the political engagement of volunteers and reinforcing the organizational and civic capacity necessary to revive democratic responsiveness and accountability. Political experiences, including canvassing, both breed and sustain further political engagement for both volunteers and voters.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to these extra democratic returns. Last-minute get-out-the vote efforts, whether undertaken by out-of-state volunteers or robo-calls, may even undermine immediate electoral goals.

Good government reformers must recognize that our primary task is to figure out how to mitigate the degree of political inequality in society by empowering ordinary Americans to effectively participate, and that doing so requires seed money. Leveraging the electorate to rein in the undue influence of the super wealthy will require more than turning out additional voters on Election Day. The electorate that turns out will need to be organized in civic associations capable of keeping it informed, attentive, and demanding, and to remain so when the campaign lights go off and the media turn away. Investing in existing local organizations and supporting their efforts to engage and learn from the electorate are, therefore, essential.

Tabatha Abu El-Haj is Associate Professor of Law at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. 

Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contributors are the authors’ own and not necessarily the views of the Brennan Center.