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Small Donors are Actually Part of the Solution, Not the Problem.

J. Mijin Cha

In his column today, Ezra Klein makes a very strange, and untrue, assertion. In talking about campaign finance reform, Klein claims that small donors are as problematic as big money. Klein writes:

Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.

Where to start? Well, how about with the most recent election, in which highly ideological big donors played a critical role in moving the GOP to the right --  both during the primaries and the general election. Think of a mega donor like Foster Friess, a hard right Christian conservative, who single-handledly kept Rick Santorum in the race and helped foster a climate in which Mitt Romney tacked right. Or think of the role played by the Club for Growth, which spent over $20 million to help knock off moderate GOP Senate and House candidates in the primaries. Or how about those Koch brothers, the life-long libertarians, who spent tens of millions of dollars in the last election cycle. 

One reason the Republican Party finds it so hard to move in a more moderate direction is because deep-pocked groups like the the Club for Growth and NRA threaten to primary any congressional member who steps out of line. It's these well-financed enforcers that are the main problem, not Michele Bachman's small donors. 

Beyond the ideological donors, special interest money doesn’t really care about bi-partisanship, either. They care about advancing their agenda. As we laid out in "Stacked Deck," the interests and priorities of the affluent become the interests and priorities of decision-makers. Big money influences both parties, not because they are interested in advancing democratic decision-making but because they want their agenda passed. And, affluent and corporate interests are advancing an agenda that is not in step with what the majority of Americans want. Most Americans want job creation, not deficit reduction, yet Congress and the Beltway obsess over the deficit because it’s what big money wants.

The truth is that diversifying campaign donor bases and increasing the number of small donors brings more voices into the political system. As it stands now, a very small percentage of people are donating to campaigns. Of those who contribute more than $200 to a campaign, 85 percent are in the top 20 percent of income earners. That means that the only voices being heard by decision-makers are those of the affluent. Encouraging small donors helps to amplify the voices of those that are not in the top income quintiles.

And, amplifying the voices of small donors makes a difference. As we highlighted in "Fresh Start," public financing systems help bring in more donors and lets legislators be less dependent on big money. As a result, Connecticut has passed a slate of policies that are more in line with constituents’ priorities, like increasing the minimum wage, adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit, paid sick days, and so on. Contrary to Klein’s claim, in Connecticut, removing the dependence on big donors helped free legislators and resulted in more bipartisanship and a better legislative process.

To his credit, Klein did agree with the need for public financing. But, his focus on small donors as contributing to polarization is wrong. Increasing small donors bring more voices into the political system. And, even if they are ideologically different, it’s a good thing for our democracy and our politics.