A week ago, Ben Smith of POLITICO broke a story about an RNC fundraising presentation held in Washington D.C. The presentation featured a slide of President Obama as the Joker under the heading "the Evil Empire," bracketed by caricatures of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (available here, in .pdf format). A number of other slides contained quotes like "What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House or the Senate…? Save the country from trending toward socialism!" and urged RNC fundraisers to promote visceral giving based on "fear, extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration."
What's particularly striking about the RNC presentation is the tacit admission that, to paraphrase an old conservative bête noire, the only thing they have to sell is fear itself.
The reaction to that revelation was a collective shrug, as if that sort of fear-mongering were an ineluctable element of grassroots fundraising. It's not, and I ought to know. I built the grassroots fundraising program that sustained ActBlue across 2009–a slow year for political giving. Those donations, drawn from our users, funded the enhancements that enabled us to grow 84% in 2009.
When discussing grassroots fundraising, it's critical to understand the difference between creating urgency and sowing fear. Successful asks underscore the need for the target to give, but negative emotions are hardly the only way to get there. In writing our own asks, I've talked about increasing the influence of grassroots donors and building infrastructure more than I've mentioned Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, and donors responded better to the former. In fact, our most successful asks are those in which we demonstrate the relevance of grassroots actions on ActBlue to a larger Democratic agenda, or show them how the numbers they put up on ActBlue drive news stories.
In short, there are other ways to appeal to donors; by accepting the fear-based paradigm of the RNC as the sine qua non of grassroots fundraising we're buying into a false equivalence. The grassroots campaigns that take place on ActBlue employ a variety of fundraising strategies, often aimed at a specific goal. Some of the largest grassroots fundraising efforts on ActBlue have focused on granular policy details.
There's a cynical take on all of this that says it all reduces to
fear–fear that Republicans will win, fear that we won't get the
policies we want, fear that our voices will be drowned out by special
interests in Washington. That's a remarkably broad generalization to
apply to hundreds of thousands of ActBlue donors, one that is contemptuous of
the diverse reasons that move us to participate in American politics.
And, apparently, it's a view that the RNC subscribes to. The RNC strategy is built around juvenile imagery and a flair for terrifying GOP donors with the threat of a nebulous, abstract adversary–in this case, a wholly irrelevant political ideology. And rather than give their donors any idea what their money will be used for, the RNC leverages terms of art like "patriotic duty" and "front line mentality" to power an agenda of endless obstruction that negatively impacts the very donors they want to court.
In short, grassroots fundraising on ActBlue reflects the diversity of our user base, while the RNC seeks uniformity through terror. (An objectively socialist approach!) If we assume that these strategies are identical, we're neglecting the difference between real and phony populism, between framing and fiction.