The Thousand-Dollar Candidate

We hear it every day: The great problem with American politics is the money. Why should it cost over $1 million to run for Congress and nearly $1 billion to run for the Presidency? It is a valid concern. But some say that this is not the actual problem. They say that the real problem is actually the fact that elected officials have too much power. After all, why bribe an elected official who is powerless or whose every move is thoroughly scrutinized? Those making this argument continue by saying that passing campaign finance reform bills does not actually take money out of politics, but actually only invites the involvement of specialized intermediaries who know how to bring about the same results under different constraints. Also, even when sound laws are in place to prevent corruption in political finance, incumbents tend to benefit from asymmetrical enforcement…as the IRS recently showed us. Still others say that the biggest issue is actually term limits: legislators stay in office for profane amounts of time by doing the things that the people who keep their campaign coffers full tell them to do, which leads to an obvious but seemingly unstoppable cycle of corruption – one that the elected officials in question may not even realize they are participating in.

But regardless of whether the problem is the money, the power, or the term limits, the problem behind the problem is the same: our elected officials are not going to change a paradigm that has worked in their favor. After all, why would incumbents want to place limitations upon themselves unless they know how to circumvent those limitations (and apply them to challengers)? And even if a challenger truly wants to change the current paradigm, he or she will have to work within that paradigm to do so – and either forsake all principles of real reform or lose the election.

It does not have to be this way. It is true that the same basic political conundrums causing corruption have been around for generations, but the environment in which they must operate has changed significantly. Because of the advent of new technologies, the current model cannot continue indefinitely any more than a warlord can arise and conquer the world with an army of charioteers.

The revolutions that have rocked the Arab world in recent times may have been fueled by long-standing frustrations, but one of the elements that made them so influential has been the use of digital media. (One Egyptian girl was actually named Facebook to honor the effectiveness of that social network in organizing the populace there.) Seeing how the political frameworks of these nations have been turned upside-down by popular movements empowered by digital media, how can we miss the implications for our own nation? With an even higher percentage of our population using digital media, it is only reasonable to think that we could be even more successful in mounting a fundamental – though non-violent – change in the way our political mechanisms function.

With so much focus on the cash flowing behind the scenes in American politics, many of us seek reform on the assumption that we can either force candidates to use more ethical methods of raising their millions or convince them to somehow do without while campaigning in the same way. What we must demonstrate, though, is that the vast adoption of new communication technologies has made those old and expensive methods of campaigning – and the donor bucks needed to fund them – largely obsolete. It is now reasonable for a conscientious and articulate person without any connections to the political establishment to mount a competitive campaign without accepting a dime in donations. This is because, between social networks, web video, email, Internet radio, and blogging, one can reach 90% of the electorate with an establishment-busting platform that 90% of the electorate agrees with – and spend less than $1,000. Technology has done what technology always does: it has drastically increased efficiency and decreased cost.Of course, people will have some doubts about such an approach, but these doubts should not be exaggerated. For example:

  • “If it were so easy, it already would have been done.”
    There always has to be a first time. The arrival of the printing press in Europe almost immediately resulted in the publication of pornographic material, but it was not until centuries later that the first scientific journals were published. Someone has to be the first to find a practical use for new technology, and once that happens, a wave of others will follow.
  • “Digital media is important in campaigns, but it is only one of many tools used.”
    It may not be the only tool available, but if you have the right message and present it in the right way, it can be the most effective, and it may be the only tool you will need.
  • “Even if you rely solely on digital media, you will need a team of people to execute a digital campaign, and that costs money.”
    High production levels are not necessary. A video captured with a webcam can be just as effective as a video costing $100,000 if you say the right things. Also, current political figures need help largely because they do not know how to use social media effectively.
  • “You will not have ballot access.”
    That depends on the race. In some cases, a candidate can get on the ballot just by getting a certain number of signatures. Even if you have to run as a write-in, imagine the sensation you will cause when you win!
  • “Even if people want to support you, they will not waste their votes on you.”
    Such a candidate can help people overcome third-party syndrome by making statements like this: “If you like what I have to say, give me a ‘Like’ on Facebook and share my posts with your friends. That won’t cost you anything. If I don’t reach X ‘Likes’ by Election Day, vote for one of the other people. If I do reach that goal, vote for me.”
  • “Third-party candidates are never successful.”
    That would be because they keep trying to play the same game according to the same rules – but with a lot less cash. The idea is to change the game and the rules.
  • “Face-to-face interaction is always better than interaction through the Internet.”
    Of course it is. But when you have an electorate numbering in the millions, reaching just 1% of them in this way would be quite a feat even when you have millions of dollars in your campaign budget.
  • “It will take more than one person getting elected in this way for us to get the real reforms that the establishment will not pass.”
    Of course it will. But we will start with one.
  • “No one will pay that much attention to something they saw on the Internet.”
    What are you doing right now? Even if you disagree, you are obviously paying attention.

Our current political system – particularly when it comes to its electoral processes – is a relic of a bygone age of telegraphs and typewriters. Just as we are beyond feudalism, so are we beyond political campaigns that rely on country club fundraising, convention center rental, and prime-time television ads. The yacht-infested monstrosities that we call our national conventions have similarly become obsolete in their button-studded opulence and brazen privatization of public policy. The party is over. Someone just needs to let everyone know.