Disclosure, I do some consulting for Actblue and have advised them since their inception.
Is there too much money in politics? We might be approaching the billion dollar campaign mark shortly, which sounds egregious. It's also so, well, a big number, and imposing. How can any of us possibly make a difference when put against such hugeness? But let's put this in perspective; we spend $20 billion on ice cream, every year. Seen through this lens, maybe Obama's quarter million donors or Edwards' hundred thousand should be seen as just a start to what is possible when we as a culture make giving to campaigns as normal as going out for ice cream.
I love that statistic on ice cream, which I got from Matt DeBergalis, the engineer and political organizer behind ActBlue. I love the example, because it illustrates how the team over there thinks about what they do and how online fundraising relates to our country. They want, in some senses, to make participation in the Democratic Party as normal as going out for ice cream. And though we put Howard Dean in the DNC, for my money, no single piece of progressive 'infrastructure' has done that better than ActBlue. Simply put, when thinking about money and power, we need to understand not just large sums brought in by rock star politicians on a Presidential level, but mass participation and collective action at all levels. And for this, we have to understand ActBlue and its role in the political process.
So what is ActBlue? They dub themselves the online clearninghouse for Democratic action. The way I think about it is that ActBlue is a new type of unofficial party committee, designed around tools and neutral third party handling of data rather than a specific set of politicians to support. While the DSCC looks at the Senate, or the DCCC at the House, ActBlue works to find the people at any level in the party who want to work, and gives them the tools to raise money for whatever they need.
|It's a perfect hybrid approach to the Federal/State model of America. Unlike parties in parliamentary systems, political parties in America are cross-cutting amorphous networks of people, with no consistent standard for who is and isn't powerful. Every state has different laws and a different political culture. In New Jersey, the county party leaders raise money and pick state Senators, but in other states party officials at the municipal committee level are the ones who glue the party together. ActBlue, when they enter a state, doesn't care who uses their tools, they just want to find the people who need them. And what they are finding is, in essence, the Democratic Party. They have taken the the internet, which doesn't care what state you are in but just serves web sites and data in a neutral manner, and made the Democratic Party look a lot more like it.
This has had a number of significant effects. One is that it's changed who is in office and how they see their base. One line I love from Ben Rahn is that what ActBlue does is 'make the invisible visible'. People with powerful address books have always channeled money to candidates, but only if you can raise $2000 checks do you get credit in the system. Now, however, the woman who promises to give you her awesome brownie recipe if you give $10 to her favorite candidates has real influence. It's no longer the lobbyists and cautious insiders that politicians see as reliable sources of support. Someone like Pat Murphy, who recruited his volunteers at Drinking Liberally and raised money from ActBlue, is extremely brave in politics because he knows lots of us can contribute to him. He didn't have to get his start self-financing or from the well-capitalized, though that is traditionally where politicians come from. And I just got some stats from Karl at ActBlue that showed that of the congressional campaigns that use ActBlue for their online fundraising and received at least $5000 from ActBlue, the average percentage of their fund raised online for Q2 was 22%. The change is real, it is palpable, and it is changing who politicians respond to. And as ActBlue expands to more states (they are at 22), where they can work with state candidates as well as Federal, more politicians will have more tools at their disposal.
The second big effect ActBlue has in the political process is to empower loose networks, such as the blogosphere. I don't believe that Americans are apathetic; from what I've seen, when a system is horribly complicated, people stay away from it. And the political system is incredibly complicated, to keep the public away from it. ActBlue is directly striking back at the trend towards elitism by demystifying how power works, and how your $20 and list of friends can make an impact. The left-wing blogs, and our various institutions, are powerful because we have found ways to engage in the system, and the single most significant tool that forces our politicians to deal with us is ActBlue. The right-wing blogosphere has not figured this out, and they are well-aware of this infrastructure gap. They are afraid of it, and are falling behind.
The powerful principle behind ActBlue is that it is a neutral governance mechanism for the party. They keep the data clean, they keep your email address private, and they give every Democrat the same tools to use to organize. This isn't because they are 'official', but because their stuff is incredibly useful and trusted. It just works, dammit. This has the effect of empowering candidate organizers instead of just media stars, which is a naturally populist outcome and very healthy. ActBlue has only existed since 2004, and they pumped hundreds of thousands of contributions to thousands of candidates from hundreds of thousands of people. But they aren't nearly done. The service is on track to hit nine figures this cycle, and they are considering moving into event management to help empower campaigns and groups that can't afford or don't know how to do online logistics. They are moving to more states, educating more campaigns, and training legions of staffers and candidates and organizers how to make an ask, follow up, and collect the money honestly, ethically, and transparently.
One part of the blogs that distinguishes us in the political system is that we organize, every day, around ideas. We like to give them life. We don't just complain about the media, we organized to go after Fox News and point out that they are not a neutral news outlet, thereby making an important argument about the role of the media in a democracy. Actblue, similarly, is not a candidate, but an idea. It is an idea that the people can take power when they have the tools to organize themselves. It is the same animating force that keeps the blogs vibrant and will keep the progressive movement vibrant.
Tomorrow, during blogosphere day, keep in mind that how we're changing the country is what the country will become. ActBlue is not just a part of the landscape, a service that exists because it's really convenient and useful for us. ActBlue is a representation of what is great about our country, that the principles of diversity, openness, transparency, and collective action can and do work. It's our movement, and ActBlue is in many ways the engine we rely on. As we learn how to be more effective, as this great country wakes up to what is possible, it is our work and the ideas behind ActBlue that is going to allow the American experiment to restore itself.