Even if he does not win the Democratic presidential primary, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is going to profoundly change American politics. Ironically enough, the biggest impact the socialist from Vermont seems to be making is on the way candidates raise money.
Sanders’ campaign has raised between $19.5 and $26 million during the third quarter of 2015 depending upon which set of numbers you use, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The numbers are different because the $19.5 million is The Monitor’s math, and the $25.7 or $26 million is Sanders’ campaign’s figure. Either way, that’s a lot of money, and more, it rivals Hillary Clinton’s fundraising efforts, which netted around $28 million in the same period.
The game changer here is the way in which Sanders raised the funds. They were donated by 650,000 individuals, each of whom gave around $30 each, or about the price of dinner at Chipotle for a family of four. Sanders was able to raise that money by taking advantage of crowdfunding; people simply went online and clicked on a button.
Bernie’s Financial Revolution
This is a radical paradigm changer because Sanders was able to bypass traditional donors such as rich people and large corporations completely. Instead, he appealed directly to the voters and got the cash straight from them.
That’s a radical change because there are no real strings attached to the funds Sanders is gathering. When a rich person or a big corporation writes a check to somebody like Hillary or Jeb Bush, it is safe to assume that something will be expected in return. When Joe or Jane Sixpack sends money to Sanders, he can do whatever he wants with it.
This gives Sanders a level of freedom that other candidates lack. He does not have to worry about offending a large corporation, and he can address issues like trade policy or unions that Hillary cannot touch.
Sanders’ fundraising is also highly effective: These charts show that Sanders actually raised more during the last quarter than Barack Obama did during the same period in 2007. If that was not enough, Sanders was able to raise $2 million in less than 24 hours in a donation surge on September 30. Sanders has tapped an incredible new source of funds that other candidates are sure to take a look at.
The Dark Side of Bernie’s Financial Revolution
It also takes away a level of accountability that big money donors provide. Sanders is not only free to address important issues but he could also be free to do some very nasty things if he wants.
Okay, Bernie is a very decent and honorable man who will probably use the money in a constructive way, but his political crowdfunding breakthrough could take American politics to some very dark places. Campaigns could become a lot uglier and a lot nastier because of this.
For all its faults, the current political funding system does effectively control behavior and impose some standards on the campaign trail. A candidate could not make blatant appeals to racism or xenophobia or promise to trample the rights of minorities for example. Nor could a candidate start using swear words or promoting homophobia.
A candidate that behaved in such a way would quickly lose funding from the major donors. Big-time donors like the Koch brothers would want nothing to do with a blatant racist or a foul-mouthed bigot. Such a person would have no means of getting his or her message out without cash.
Now, thanks to Bernie, such a candidate could simply resort to crowdfunding to finance his or her campaign. A racist or a communist might be able to become a serious political contender by launching a crowdfunding campaign much as Bernie has.
Bernie at least seems to believe in democracy and the Constitution, but what about a real Marxist that dreams of being an American Lenin, such as that nincompoop Oliver Stone, who is a personal friend of Fidel Castro?
How Crowdfunding Can Disrupt Politics
Such crowdfunding could seriously disrupt politics by interjecting ideas and points of view that are currently kept out of the mainstream by fundraising. It could also help alternative candidates rise further.
One person who could obviously benefit from crowdfunding is Donald Trump. Yes, Trump is a billionaire, but his funds are limited, and at some point, he will have to start raising money. It is hard to imagine mainstream Republican donors handing the Donald a cent, but what about his millions of fans, all the people that hate immigrants and foreign trade?
Trump certainly has the resources to launch a major crowdfunding effort if he wants. He also has a lot of experience in the media and legions of admirers. The Donald could quickly accumulate a vast war chest with which to completely disrupt the Republican Party.
Trump’s success could force GOP candidates to take stands on immigration that might make them unelectable in the general election. It could even cost Republicans congressional and other elections by convincing Hispanic and other voters that the GOP is a party of ignorant bigots.
Nor will he be the only one. What about Dr. Ben Carson? What about other political troublemakers that have national followings, such as Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan?
Beyond candidates, there are all the single issue campaigns out there: gun control, abortion, animal rights, antiabortion, various environmental groups, gun rights, school prayer, etc. What happens if some influential figure such as a movie star, a preacher, a radio host, a billionaire or a writer organizes a crowdfunding campaign to underwrite attack ads against any politician that does not support his or her pet cause?
Much like business, American political campaigns are changing completely. They’re being completely disrupted by technology just like industries such as retail.
So ironically enough, Bernie Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist, is succeeding in changing American politics by using the methods of modern business. One has to wonder what the next presidential campaign will look like. It certainly won’t look like any we’ve seen so far.