The Intercept - October 22, 2021
KYRSTEN SINEMA MIGHT be on the young side for a senator — less than half the age of some of her colleagues — but she represents the Democratic Party’s past. Think of her and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as the dead hands reaching out of the grave, grabbing at the party as it tries to move on from them. They might have managed to claw back spending on the Build Back Better Act, but the reality that their time has passed is clear. And the way you can measure this most directly is in terms of dollars.
For Sinema in particular, her approach to the negotiations — to push against social spending and tax hikes on the rich and corporations — has cost her badly in the polls at home and hasn’t had much of an upside when it comes to campaign cash. Her model of politics is outdated, though it has been the dominant form for most of her life.
In the 1980s, in response to the Reagan Revolution and the ongoing realignment that broke what Democrats thought was a permanent stranglehold on Congress, the party developed what was called at the time a “PAC strategy” but today is just called fundraising. Republican candidates in 1980 had heavily outspent Democrats, who believed that their name recognition and long record — they implemented the New Deal, won World War II, enacted the Great Society, and so on — meant that the GOP was wasting money on television. When that turned out not to be the case, Democrats realized that they needed comparable money of their own, and the fundraising idea was that since Democrats still had durable control of the House of Representatives — they could cling to it for 14 years after Reagan’s 1980 election — businesses that had interests before Congress needed to start ponying up for access.
Access quickly turned to alliance, and the party drifted heavily in a pro-business direction. These “New Democrats” argued that the party had to beat back the power of special interests — and by special interests, they meant civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions. The presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 pushed back against this hegemonic approach, but without a way to aggregate grassroots enthusiasm into the money needed for a national infrastructure, the threat was neutralized. Starting with Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race, it finally started to look possible that a candidate funded by a large number of small, individual donations could compete with one funded by the rich and corporations. Technology was making it possible for people to quickly translate their enthusiasm not just into a honk and wave on a highway overpass, but also into actual money.
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama showed the promise of small dollars in 2008, but he also raised an insane amount of money from Wall Street — and, once in office, he abandoned the network of small donors he had built and went with the big money. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., nearly toppled the Clinton machine with his famous $27 contributions. In 2018, the small-donor revolution spread to normie Democrats, with anti-Trump, #Resistance liberals throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at congressional Democrats, enabling them to retake the House. In 2020, small donors did it again, and the resource-rich Democrats took both the House and Senate. ...
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