Today, a man named Al Hoffman has a column in The USA Today, the paper of record of America’s airports. At the bottom of the column, it is noted that Hoffman was once George W. Bush’s ambassador to Portugal, just so you get a feel for the type of person we’re dealing with here. Hoffman, as he writes in the column, spent the last several months fundraising for Jeb Bush’s too-big-to-fail presidential campaign, which, of course, failed spectacularly.
Hoffman’s column is titled “Big Donors Can Save Democracy From Donald Trump,” which is essentially a retrofitted hook for someone who gets rich off political largesse to argue in bad faith that political largesse is good for America. Let’s examine his points:
Americans should look closely at the impact of big money in politics. Some see it as a corrupting influence, a way of buying access to officials and politicians.
Others see it as a stimulant that helps motivate citizens to do their civic duty.
To start, Hoffman attaches his thesis—that the billions of private dollars poured into politics act as a motivational tool—to a nebulous group of citizens he calls, in the great parlance of newspaper columns everywhere, “others.” Do these people exist? My guess would be: no. This is important to remember.
Political donors can, despite the stigma, do some admirable things. They help hire eager younger staffers who are passionate about politics. They pay for mailers that remind people to vote. Donors make it possible for candidates to hire intelligent scholars who work on policy and ideas, allowing campaigns to harness the best minds America has to offer.
It’s possible to almost admire Hoffman’s ability to make the maggot-infested underbelly of politics seems not just benign but virtuous. Here, he argues that mega-rich donors “help hire eager younger staffers who are passionate about politics” (the youngest and most passionate of whom are volunteers working for free stickers), “pay for mailers that remind people to vote” (the Republican direct mail industrial complex is a massive scam that preys on the desperate, and money donated to conservative causes frequently helps push projects designed to depress voter turnout) and “hire intelligent scholars who work on policy and ideas” (people who are paid to intellectually justify policies that materially benefit donors like Hoffman).
But can’t all this be done with small dollar donations? Isn’t it nobler to take in $5 million from a million donors rather than $5 million from 5 donors?
Perhaps. There’s incredible virtue in the college student or retiree or construction worker who is willing to invest in our political process. But Americans also need to take a tough look at how these funds are solicited. And they must ask themselves where their donations go.
The mechanics aren’t pretty. Shaking millions of people by the ankles for five dollar donations is expensive. In the GOP field in particular, the small donor industry is something of a self-licking ice cream cone.
Here’s the math behind it. Last year, the Daily Caller reported that of the $54 million spent by ten large conservative PACs in 2014, only $3.6 million went to candidates. At that rate, a hypothetical fundraising campaign designed to raise a million dollars by imploring voters to “help us stop Obama from taking your guns” might cost $950,000 to hit its target. During Ben Carson’s campaign, 54 cents out of every dollar raised went to fundraising costs. The campaign hired a call center company that had up to 400 callers a night soliciting Republican voters for money. Campaign money also went to solicitation emails, many of them incendiary in their tone and aggressive in their volume.
Just several paragraphs before indicting a fundraising industry that exists mostly to enrich itself, Al Hoffman argued that big-money donors fund mail campaigns that “remind people to vote.” This is an incredible lie. The phone calls made by Ben Carson to prospective small donors were indistinguishable from the mail that showed up at those people’s homes.
The provocative tactics used to elicit small-dollar donations feed a monster of demagoguery. They make voters feel scared, angry or resentful in the hopes of harvesting those emotions for financial gain.
This is how we end up with candidates like Donald Trump. When voters are fed from a manure pile of negativity and rabble-rousing, it makes the soil fertile for firebrand agitators like the reality TV star.
False. “We”—the Republican party—ended up with Donald Trump because people like Al Hoffman pooled very large sums of money in an attempt to place candidates such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney—for whom Hoffman once hosted a $20,000 per plate dinner at his own “seaside mansion”—in the White House. Such politicians are favored by the Republican establishment, of which Hoffman is a part. Donald Trump’s base is now loudly and vigorously rebelling against the Republican establishment in part because they perceive—correctly—that their preferred candidates are beholden to donors like Hoffman.
Large donors can insist on accountability. If a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.
Or they “challenge” candidates to adopt positions that are unpopular among the electorate but popular amongst donors, like “free trade” deals and cuts to Social Security. That donors are a check on candidates only highlights the influence they have over said candidates.
Trump brags that he is without big donors. That may be true. But it also means he is without restraint. He is free to agitate and feed chaos. In business and politics alike, oversight is a good thing. It keeps the ship in calmer waters.
The oversight of mega-rich political donors has not led to a single, identifiable positive development in America.
While voters disagreed with my choice for president, even his critics would agree that Jeb released the most detailed set of policies and reforms in the race.
They would not agree.
Political donations are like a firearm. Money can advance both justice and injustice. It depends on whose finger is on the trigger.
This is a remarkably awful analogy.
In the end, it is the character of our country that matters. And that’s how Plato had it. Promote integrity among our citizens, and the negative influence of money will wane.
I forgot to mention that there is a whole bit about Plato threaded through this column.
Anyway, Albert Hoffman and the people he represents are lying hucksters.