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At times, everything comes together. I work for ActBlue and I read Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias regularly. Sometimes I see Prof. Lessig in the distance when I head out for lunch. Yesterday, Ezra and Matt both had posts up about Lessig's presentation on institutional corruption that I wanted to address.

Part I: Lessig's Argument

The video is rather long, so I'll summarize. Lessig defines institutional corruption as follows:

Institutional corruption isn't Blagojevich. It's not bribery or any violation of any existing rules … [it's] a certain kind of influence within an economy of influence. It's institutional corruption if it (1) weakens the effectiveness of an institution to serve its purpose or (2) Weakens the public trust of that institution, leading to the inability of the institution to serve its purpose.

In other words, it's not so much about corruption within an institution as the corruption of the institution itself, or the appearance thereof. That last bit is important in Lessig's formulation: if everyone believes the institution to be corrupted, then it might as well be. They won't trust the process, and they won't trust the results–an idea that's validated to a certain extent by the unfolding healthcare reform crisis.

If you're onboard with that, you're probably wondering what the "economy of influence" Lessig mentions is. Briefly, it works like this:

Special interests have a lot of money, and are in search of favorable policy outcomes. They hire lobbyists, who promote their employer's preferred policy. Legislators grant these lobbyists access because 1) running a campaign is expensive, and lobbyists represent a lot of campaign cash and 2) once a legislator's campaigning days are over, lobbying is a pretty good way to make a living. That results in legislation that meets the needs of the interests that dispatched the lobbyists. So they send more.

In other words, everybody is being rational, but that way of doing business undermines public trust, produces severely compromised policy, and ultimately results in broken political institutions.

Part II: What Is To Be Done?

Driving the whole process is the fact that legislators need money to run their campaigns. If you take that out of the picture, both lobbyist access and the lobbying industry dry up, which also handily removes the lure of a potential second career as a lobbyist from a legislator's calculation.

Lessig advocates public financing for elections as the best way to create this alternate food source for federal campaigns. The problem is that he's just spent 45 minutes explaining why that can't happen. Robust public financing legislation would represent a system-wide failure of the "economy of influence." Assuming the political climate even allows legislators to consider such a bill, chances are it would be imperfect and riddled with loopholes that interests insert in order to exploit them later. Additionally, as the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC demonstrates, even imperfect campaign finance law isn't safe. Clearly, that alternate food source has to come from outside the Washington D.C. economy of influence. Transparency is also crucial, as part of reversing institutional corruption is restoring public trust. People have to know where the money is coming from.

ActBlue does that, and more. We track donors and dollars in real time. We report everything to the FEC. We are, in a word, transparent. Moreover, we work with campaigns at every level of politics. Annise Parker, the newly-elected mayor of Houston, has an ActBlue listing. So do Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. They and their staffers are learning a new participatory model for campaign fundraising. We are building a farm system for the Democratic Party, and the results are real. Read the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of our 2009 numbers for the data on that.

Rep. Donna Edwards, MD-04, said it best:

ActBlue removes the K Street lobbyists from the equation … [candidates] can actually act on their own, and work on policy that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Donna Edwards defeated 8-term incumbent Al Wynn in the 2008 Democratic primary. She raised $500,000 on ActBlue from 9,000 donors.  ActBlue unravels the economy of influence, one donor at a time. And we do it through methods I think Prof. Lessig would approve of. While I may disagree with him on the technical aspects, I agree with him on this:

We face as a nation an extraordinary range of critical problems that require serious attention … the responsibility we need to focus is the responsibility of the good people, the decent people, the people who could've picked up a phone. The responsibility of us.

I took the title of this post from a great blues tune by Albert Collins. There's a lyric that comes to mind whenever I get frustrated with American politics–and yes, political professionals do get frustrated with our political system, even as we work within it–that keeps me going. I think I'll end with it.

She said, 'I want you to be a winner / I love you, son, I don't want you to quit.'

While you should read the quarter-by-quarter analysis of ActBlue’s growth in 2009, the executive summary is as follows:

  • Volume ($) increased 84% over 2007
  • Volue (# of donations) increased 92% over 2007
  • The number of Democratic entities receiving money through ActBlue doubled relative to 2007
  • Successful fundraising pages increased 167% over 2007

It’s worth taking a moment to think about the two moments we’re comparing here. In 2007, the Democrats were fresh off an election that returned both houses of Congress to their control. The popularity of the GOP was tanking, and prospects for retaking the White House looked good.

In 2009 the Democrats had control of Congress and the White House, and were heading towards a midterm election. The anticipation that characterized 2007 had been replaced with the reality of governing. The country continued to struggle under the weight of a prolonged recession. Only a few states had elections.

Nevertheless, 241,000 ActBlue users, overwhelmingly small-dollar donors, combined to send more than $30M to Democratic candidates and committees.

ActBlue exists at the nexus of a number of accelerating trends, all of which share some responsibility for driving our growth in these unlikely circumstances. The main trend is the continued growth of the internet in American life, with an estimated 44% of American households having access. Subsidiary trends include online banking, which grew by 47%, and Twitter and Facebook, which saw an increase in unique visitors of 1382% and 228% respectively. Facebook’s user growth occurred primarily in the 35-54 year old demographic. Whether you’ve embraced the internet for transactional or social reasons, the trend line is clear: you are not alone.

In the past year, ActBlue pioneered integrations with Facebook and Twitter, allowing Democratic donors to give via tweet and share the fact that they’d contributed on both sites. In short, we’re meeting Democratic donors where they are, with overwhelmingly positive results.

The totals for 2009 are below–click to enlarge.

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Guest Post by Karl-Thomas Musselman

In the midst of a very busy start this year in the online fundraising and campaign finance worlds, we thought we'd take a step back and look at how things are going halfway through the 2010 election cycle. For that, I've pulled together some numbers and charts that put into perspective the activity at ActBlue.com in all of 2009 as compared to 2007, the most recent similar mid-cycle year.

[Ed--I pulled this graph out of the body of the post because, in KT's words, "When the 'worst' quarter of 2009 is on par with the 'best' quarter of 2007 you have to be impressed." But keep reading, there's plenty of great data below.]

Year | Total Raised | Contributions | Avg Contribution Size

2007   $16,781,745    125,601         $133.61
2009   $30,811,495    241,267         $127.71

Those are some impressive numbers. That's 84% growth in total dollars raised for Democrats, 92% growth in individual contributions, while seeing just under a 5% decline in the average contribution size. But in addition to the dollar and donors, what's even more exciting is this next batch of numbers which reflect ActBlue's mission to assist all Democratic candidates and causes and allow anyone to create personal fundraising pages. 

Year | # Unique Recipients | # Personal Pages w/Donors

2007   1017                  1233 
2009   1942                  3286

This is where we're democratizing the process of financing campaigns. The 91% increase in unique recipients means that in 2009 nearly twice as many Democratic candidates received a check for funds raised through ActBlue- which is impressive because the raw number of elected offices is a fairly static. Even more amazing is the 167% increase in successful personal ActBlue fundraising pages- skyrocketing to over 3,000 in 2009, a year when just a handful of states held their statewide elections (most notable being New Jersey & Virginia) and a greater number held municipal elections as part of ActBlue trial program. We'll be looking in more detail at this growth at the state and local level in future analysis.

Now for some charts. These compare a number of 2007 v. 2009 metrics on the quarter by quarter level.

That huge surge of contributions in the last half of 2009 was due in part to the upswing in the health care debate, the Joe "You Lie" Wilson effect on fundraising for Democrat Rob Miller, the No on One / Protect Marriage Equality campaign in Maine, and Netroots based fundraising flowing into the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, FDL Action PAC, and Blue America's PAC.

The drop in the average contribution size in late 2009 goes hand in hand with the increase in small dollar giving noted by a number of the committees in the prior graph.

That's just beautiful- don't you think?

This last graph is the best in my opinion- you can see the democratization of fundraising and empowerment of the average donor to raise small dollar contributions for the candidates or causes of their choice. That's what this is all about.

The real value of the Citizens United decision might be its crystal-clear affirmation of reality.  Like I said this morning, I'm not a fan of the decision.  But "corporate" money has always been in politics.  The Court itself noted that "political speech is so ingrained in this country’s culture that speakers find ways around campaign finance laws."

The problem is that it's not.  As a country, we don't spend nearly enough energy on politics.  Only a small minority of Americans contribute to candidates.  Campaign finance regulations may have been a comforting check on corporate interests, but they were never the most effective.  With corporations about to enjoy an unencumbered ability to spend money on political advocacy, we must respond with strength.  It's time for a better answer: one that builds a deeper political culture up from its base, friend to friend and community to community.

While I'm disappointed by the decision of the court in the matter of Citizens United v. FEC, we know that corporate money has always maneuvered around the legislative barriers erected by Congress. Moreover, the academic doomsaying around this issue overlooks an essential truth about American politics: millions of engaged Americans are always worth more than millions of corporate dollars.

Denying the agency and power of Americans feeds a culture of cynicism and disengagement that is antithetical to a healthy political process. If defeatist arguments carry the day, we will hand corporate interests a more significant victory than their money could ever buy.

ActBlue's success tells a different story. When we founded ActBlue in 2004, I knew that corporate donations would always be a significant factor in our political process. ActBlue is a counterweight, a means of balancing special interest money through Democratic mobilization. Our model has been proven. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have used ActBlue to raise $118,000,000 for Democrats. That's six times more money than the entire oil and gas industry gave to Democrats over the same period.

ActBlue allows Democrats to shape their political future in profound and enduring ways. Regardless of the court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, that's change we can believe in.
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