In March of last year, at TED, I announced the launch of the Mayday.US PAC — “a SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs,” as we sloganized it, but more precisely, a rally to get a Congress that would end the corrupting influence of money in politics.
We knew Americans cared about this issue — in a poll at the end of 2013, 96 percent said it was “important” to “reduce the influence of money in politics.” But we also knew that most Americans think nothing can be done — 91 percent, according to the same poll. So we wanted to find a way to make change seem possible, to unleash the energy for reform that we believe America already holds.
We started with a campaign to crowdfund an unheard of amount of money for this issue — enough to run a credible experiment to see whether we could make it salient enough to change elections.
Our first goal was $1 million in 30 days. If that were met, we’d get it matched, and then we’d try for $5 million in 30 days. If that were met, we’d get that matched too. By July, our plan was to have $12 million to make a single bet across of mix of races — so we could show that Americans cared enough about this corruption to elect candidates who committed to ending it.
We succeeded with the fundraising — or at least 90%. But we lost the bet.
We raised the initial $1 million in 13 days, rather than 30. That was matched two weeks later, and then we launched the second campaign. Thirty days after that, we crossed the $5 million mark. And over the next months, we got close to matching that $5 million. By the end of our campaign, we had raised $11 million of the $12 million that we had planned, with more than 50,000 donors from almost every state in the union.
Yet the election was a bust. We had picked hard races, except for one. Beyond that one, we won just one. The other six defeats gave the skeptics no reason to doubt the conventional view that Americans don’t care about the corruption of their politics. “It’s a zero issue,” Politico quoted a political consultant after the election.
“No one cares. They shrug. They already believe that all politicians are corrupt assholes. It’s baked in the cake. They get it.”
When I announced Mayday.US in March, I knew it was an experiment. I knew experiments fail. Indeed, there were many points of possible failure. We could have missed the original $1 million goal. Or the $1 million match. Or, as it seemed certain we would, we could have missed the $5 million goal. Or, as we technically did (though we came pretty darn close), the $5 million match. Risk was built into the plan, both in the fundraising and the campaigns. We picked very difficult races because we knew that winning easy races would prove nothing. And everything in our initial plan was about proving the viability of a much bigger intervention in 2016.
Yet as much as I understood the likelihood of crashing on the rocks, there’s nothing quite like crashing on the rocks. I had never worked so hard for anything. For months afterwards, it seemed I had worked for nothing. Even friends didn’t quite know how to respond to a defeat as dramatic as this. I was the “egghead” from Harvard, as Politico put it, proven wrong. And God knows (and for good reason), America loves a Harvard professor proven wrong.
And indeed, I had been proven wrong. While the data from the polling after the election confirmed that yes, Americans cared about this issue, and that a significant number had voted on the basis of it, I was wrong to believe that the issue could trump the overwhelming partisan pull of American politics today, and wrong to believe that, in the midst of the squeals of modern American campaigns, we could make a credible claim that our candidates could make a difference. I believed they could make a difference — even the candidates with whose views on other issues I strongly disagreed. But in the context of 30-second television ads, it proved too difficult to get people to cross a partisan line to vote for reform. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), the one contested race we prevailed in, is going to be a great leader in Congress. Jim Rubens, the New Hampshire Republican we supported (unsuccessfully) for Senate, is emerging as the most important and effective leader for reform in his party, and the nation. But what we didn’t prove that there was untapped energy for 2016, and that was the aim of the 2014 experiment.
So we gave up.
Hold onto the outraged surprise that sentence produced, because that’s exactly the point. Of course we didn’t give up. How could we? We got into this fight because we believed this is the most important issue that our democracy faces. It is the civil rights issue of our time, and the central issue that will determine whether it is true to call ours a democracy anymore. Unless we can find a way to end the corrupting influence of money in American politics, America will continue its slide away from its citizens, towards those who dominate our politics.
And those who dominate — the funders — are very few. In 2014, less then 2 percent of America gave anything to anyone running for Congress. But of those who did, the top 100 gave as much as the bottom 4.75 million. Less than .05 percent gave the maximum in even one election cycle. Less than half of that gave the equivalent of the maximum in both cycles. And 100 Americans gave 70 percent of the SuperPAC money spent through the cycle.
We have to change this if we’re to give ordinary Americans a reason to care about their politics again.
That point is obvious to most, but what’s missed by most is this: We can, in fact, change it. A single statute changing the way elections are funded would radically change the inequality of the current system.
Just think about that point for a second. When civil rights leaders were pressing for the law to recognize (finally) the equality of people on the basis of race, or sex, or sexual orientation, no one imagined that a single statute would change everything. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but he didn’t believe the problem of racism and inequality would just disappear because of those laws. Racism is a pathology in the DNA of a culture. You don’t wake up one day no longer a racist. It takes generations to rip that disease from society, and to remake it as equal. It is a long, hard fight.
But this fight is different. The corrupting influence of money in politics is just a matter of incentives. “Just” in the sense that incentives explain it, not “just” in the sense that it’s simple to change.
Yet because it is “just” a matter of incentives, if we did change the incentives, the problem would resolve. Overnight. In Connecticut, when the people forced the legislature to change the way elections were funded, 78 percent of the elected representatives opted into the new system in the first year. The question is not, how do we remake the American people? The question is simply, how do we change the incentives of American politicians?
No doubt, the lobbyist-cronies complex will fight the change. No doubt, that fight will be incredibly difficult. But this is not a civil war. Winning will mean winning, and when we win, the fuel that feeds this corrupt system — the money that courses through the lobbyist-cronies complex — will go back to what it does best: building a better widget.
We can’t give up on fixing this problem. There are too many issues that need a government that can think — from climate change to the deficit, from inequality to a crazy tax system, from endless spending on “defense” to endless gifts to crony capitalists. And we will only ever get a government that can think sensibly if we change the way elections are funded.
So no, obviously, we didn’t give up. Instead, we went back to the drawing board. The key lesson that now frames our thinking is the recognition that we can’t do something different unless we are different too.
Conventional politics is deeply partisan. It is focused on scorched earth campaigning. The product of its work after each election cycle is an America that wants even less to do with its government and certainly less to do with its politicians. Politics doesn’t produce leaders. Politics is rollerball: Everything is about the last, bloodied soul left standing.
But we don’t need partisan victories to win this fight. We need a majority in Congress. Though Democrats just now are more committed to reform than Republicans, America will not pass fundamental reform without at least a credible number of Republicans supporting it. The critical work that we must do is not to defeat Republicans to elect reform-minded Democrats.
The critical work is to find reformers on both sides.
In fact, this was the strongest signal from the data from the elections in 2014. When the fight was partisan — when the ultimate question would be whose team would win — it was incredibly difficult to get voters to think about corruption reform as an issue. But when the fight was not partisan — when it was clear which side would win, because the seat was safe — then the candidate supporting corruption reform did better. Even — I’d say, especially — among Republicans: If you give voters the chance to vote with their team while voting for reform, they’ll take it.
This means we need to push the fight further back in the cycle of the elections. The focus needs to be less partisan and so more focused on primaries in safe seats. Even better, the focus needs to be less about the election fight and more about citizens persuading incumbents to sign on to reform months before an election.
In the time since November, we’ve been working to craft a plan to do just that, and a platform to support it.
About a third of Congress is already committed to reforms that would fundamentally change the way campaigns are funded. We need to close the gap between that third and a majority.
So in the balance of 2015, we’re launching the biggest citizen lobbying campaign we can, to recruit incumbents to commit to fundamental reform.
We’ll do this in two stages. Starting today (March 14), we have launched a crowd-sourced project to identify possible allies in Congress — the incumbents who could become the leaders for reform. Turning first to the army of supporters who built Mayday.US last year, we will ask them to help us understand who in Congress is most likely to support reform that doesn’t already and, importantly, why. As members of Congress are nominated for leadership, we’ll tweet the nominations and notify those members. And as we count the nominations and read why they were nominated, we will build our list of possible allies. We, of course, have our own view of the most likely recruits. But we’re committed to testing those ideas against the judgment of the crowd.
Then, on May 1, on the anniversary of the launch of Mayday.US, we will kick off stage two. With the list of potential leaders tested and honed, we will deploy a platform that we have been building to engage citizens as lobbyists, and give them the tools to connect effectively with representatives.
Right now, that platform does three things.
First, it will connect our members to members of Congress, to enable a member-to-member ask — will you become a leader, by cosponsoring fundamental reform?
Second, it will connect our members to voters in targeted districts, to recruit those voters to reach out to their members of Congress and ask them the very same question — will you become a leader, by cosponsoring fundamental reform? This step is critical because members of Congress must see the support in their own districts. We want to surface that support, and channel it.
Third, and potentially most interesting, we will experiment with an idea that my friend Aaron Swartz first coded more than four years ago — a Funder’s Pledge. We will work to recruit large contributors in our targeted districts to make a very different kind of money pledge: a commitment not to contribute to any candidate who doesn’t support fundamental reform. We’ll give large funders, in other words, a publicly interested reason to just say no. Some of course don’t want such an excuse. But many are just tired of this system, and we believe, based on testing in earlier cycles, that those many could add up quickly.
These will be the first three steps. No doubt, they will change. Indeed, we’re committed to the possibility of them changing. Because the fundamental commitment of this project is not to any particular technique. The commitment is to a process of experimentation: We will try a strategy and learn from it. And then we will either modify or abandon it, based on what we learn. So that as we move through the list of potential allies for reform, the citizen lobbying machine will only get better. We will learn better how to convince — first voters and then funders — on our way to recruiting incumbents to reform.
Because here is our bet this time around: If we can get close — if we could make it plausible that fundamental reform could actually happen — then we might create an opportunity in the 2016 elections that no one right now believes even possible. If winning this issue were feasible, or even just reasonable, then there’s a chance that the next great president would pick this issue up. Whether it’s a Republican attacking “crony capitalism” or a Democrat attacking “big money in politics,” if we gave that candidate a reason to believe they could win in Congress, we could give the right candidate a reason to take up the issue.
That, in the end, is the key. Change needs more than the rhetoric of a president. Obama taught us that. Change needs the rhetoric and leadership of a president, in a context of the possible.
We want to help with the part that recruits Congress. We will do that by continuing to build grassroots support for this fundamental change and channeling it back to Congress. If we succeed, then our work, plus the work of the dozens of other incredible organizations focused on this task, can create the conditions in which a spark could start a fire — one that might finally break the structures that have corrupted this government and give us back a government dependent on us, the people, and “not the rich,” as Dolly Madison’s husband put it, “more than the poor.”
Nothing real is possible until we achieve this equality. It is time we do.
Illustrations by Yarek Waszul