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In yesterday's Washington Post, T.W. Farnam apparently thought it would be illuminating to compare grassroots donors to addicts. The article is the other half of a classic D.C. lose-lose attack on the grassroots: if you don't give, you're a feckless mass who can't be trusted to come through for candidates, and if you do give you're rubes at mercy of canny political operatives.

Unconsidered in the article is the apparently outlandish possibility that grassroots donors are making their own decisions about who to support–that they aren't just money pinatas to be beaten by enterprising staffers when cash gets low. Crazy, I know. 

Beyond the condescending frame and patronizing tone, the article still has a huge problem: what's the alternative? Over the past two years we've seen a marked erosion of campaign finance law, always to the benefit of monied interests. If grassroots donors don't step up to provide a counterweight to that ever-increasing concentration of power, the end result will be the total capture of our electoral system by those interests. Voters will just be the people who show up on election day to ratify a choice that was made long before ballots were printed.

And that's the real reason why grassroots giving matters: by engaging in the fundraising process, grassroots donors are taking ownership of their political future. To use a well-worn GOP chestnut, they have "skin in the game." Grassroots donors raised over half a million dollars for Kathy Hochul (D-NY) and helped her pull out an unlikely win in NY-26. That kind of participation fulfills the promise of American democracy, and shouldn't be treated like some kind of hideous affliction brought on by the digital age. 

On Wednesday, the Washington Post broke the news that the American Action Network, a Republican "charitable organization" along the lines of American Crossroads GPS, was financed entirely by 11 checks, with 82% of its funding coming from just three donors.

AAN and Crossroads GPS are not required to disclose donor information and can protect donors from any blowback that might result from their decision to influence the political process or the specific ways in which AAN/Crossroads GPS employ their money to accomplish that goal. As a result, donors get to have their cake and eat it too: they're largely invisible to the American voter, but highly influential within the small community of policymakers that make legislative decisions. It's an appealing proposition.

There are a number of significant downsides to this arrangement, however. Before I get into them, I'd like to be clear: there's no problem with giving money to political candidates. There's no problem with giving a lot of money to political candidates. There is a problem with giving undisclosed money to political candidates. 

At the most basic level, disclosure is a mental shortcut for voters. It's a way for them to consider the source, to divine what interests believe supporting this candidate is in their interest. If that information isn't available, it undermines democratic accountability. If voters can't get access to any information about who is backing whom, their role in the political process becomes little more than a patina of consent on top of a structure they are prevented from informing themselves about.

So you have a situation in which, over the long term, rational actors are undermining the very system they depend on. Politicians need to finance their campaigns and want to outraise their opponents. Their donors want to insulate themselves from the consequences of their speech. The tragic irony is that in doing so, they are sawing the foundations of a functioning democracy–information and accountability–out from underneath themselves. Left to its own devices, the emerging situation becomes a race to the bottom: who can raise the most money while revealing the least information about its source. It's not hard to see how that worsens what Prof. Larry Lessig calls "institutional corruption," and ultimately paralyzes our government. 

That's why what we do here at ActBlue is so important. Our platform gives small donors a stake in the process and enables them to make themselves felt in major races, while also preserving the transparency that's key to a stable democracy. That transparency, in turn, lets donors assess the impact of their donations in aggregate, which makes them more likely to give again. In short, our virtuous cycle counteracts the vicious cycle kickstarted by Citizens United. 

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