A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRACTICE: MONEY IS NOT THE KEY TO POLITICAL SUCCESS
by Gennady Shkliarevsky, Professor Emeritus
Today I received the following letter in my mailbox signed by Speaker McCarthy:
Nancy Pelosi just spearheaded a multi-state MASSIVE fundraising spree with Hakeem Jeffries and their top cronies…
Pelosi may no longer have the gavel, but do NOT underestimate her swampy schemes.
She is LIVID that we took back Congress and is recruiting every last Hollywood elitist and liberal megadonor to FLOOD my colleagues and me with dark money attacks!
Now that Pelosi knows she has nothing to lose, she and her leftist followers are bolder than they’ve ever been. They will do ANYTHING to stop us.
That means we need all hands on deck RIGHT NOW to counteract her dark money tour so that we can block Pelosi and Schumer’s radical schemes once and for all.
Our war chests are EMPTY after a bruising election season – we’re defenseless.
I am happy that Republicans, with the help of the American people, have finally denied control over the House to the corrupt Democrat clique led by Pelosi. I admire the work and commitment to consolidating the Republican gains by Speaker McCarthy, Representative Gaetz, Representative Jordan, and other committed Republicans. But there is room for criticism and improvement.
The Democrats have often portrayed the Republicans as conservatives who do not offer much innovation. This criticism is not entirely misplaced. Indeed, more often than not, inertia has and still does prevail in the Republican camp. Republicans are notoriously less proactive than their rivals.
The situation in the Republican party began to change with the election of Donald Trump, who embraced the discontent among the American people and captured the presidency. However, Trump did not venture far beyond traditional Republicanism in his politics as president.
He emphasized the same tax and spending cuts as many Republican candidates before him. There was, however, one aspect in Trump’s political practice that differed dramatically from the traditional Republican practice; and this aspect actually frightened many Republicans. Trump established a direct link with his supporters. This move was fabulously successful. It still is. Even though Trump was defeated, he still held mass rallies that attract enormous crowds and keep him in the public eye. They still make him a credible candidate for the next elections.
The success of Trump’s rallies was not only, and not so much, due to his personality. It represents a new trend that is gaining momentum in politics today. This emerging trend is associated with new political consciousness and activism among the American people. It is a result of rapidly changing technological, social, and economic conditions in our country and the world.
Americans are much more mindful of politics today. They realize that their life vitally depends on their involvement in the political process as self-governed and autonomous individuals. In short, Americans today do not want somebody to speak for them; they want to be heard and have their own voice.
Interestingly, this very same trend contributed to the popularity and success of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Sanders created a momentum that was eventually successfully stifled by the Democrat bigwigs.
In his politics, Trump intuitively grasped the political potential of the new trend, and he successfully exploited it. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has not developed his intuition into a comprehensive and coherent new practice. He operated based on trial and error rather than on a deliberate plan that had a solid foundation. Trump is largely an improviser and experimenter, rather a systematic political practitioner.
The new leaders of the Republican majority in the House are much more focused on specifics. The Republicans create and populate various committees in the House and begin to enunciate their political agenda. They also understand the need for communicating with the public. They are very active on social networks.
However, they still do not venture far to formulate and exploit the new possibilities in the world of American politics. The above letter from Speaker McCarthy is revealing in this respect. McCarthy shows his adherence to the traditional approach of elite politics where the leaders formulate the agenda, communicate it to the public, and then ask people for contributions to advance this agenda.
Common people play essentially the role of passive supporters whose major function is to make monetary contributions. This approach essentially puts the Republicans into a position where they have to compete with the Democrats in filling war chests.
It is the same money politics that has made the Democrats so successful. The Democrats have established and exploited strong ties among business elites and tech giants and have them solidly in their pockets. I very much doubt that the young Republican lions will be able to beat the Democrats at this game. The way they use their base is cumbersome and inefficient: it is much more difficult to work with small contributions rather than seek support from a few wealthy people. But more importantly, this practice does not allow the Young Turks to exploit new possibilities offered by the realities of the modern world.
History ultimately teaches us that money is not the only and even the most important key to political success. There were many examples in American history when winners were not those who had the most money. John Bowden Connolly, for example, had more money in his chest than any other Republican candidate in the elections of 1980, including Ronald Reagan. Yet, he had to withdraw his bid after the first primaries. Closer to our time, Donald Trump certainly had less money than Hillary Clinton when he beat her in 2016.
Why do politicians need money? They need money to take their message to the public by using political advertising and mass media. They need to convince people to secure their support. This is the old political practice. It is elite politics where vertical, hierarchical interactions play the dominant role. The public does not participate in formulating the agenda, so people must be convinced to support it.
But there is another way, a very different political practice that sustains a balance between hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions. If the broad public participates in formulating the agenda, then politicians do not have to convince people to support them because people have been involved in creating the agenda. When people participate in formulating the agenda, they will not vote against it and will work willingly to promote this agenda.
Some may say that this approach is utopian. I guess back at the end of the 18th century, many felt that the search for American independence was also a utopian enterprise. There is no doubt that the proposed new practice gives rise to many questions about specifics that need to be answered. There are many details that need to be addressed. But all this is a matter of technicalities. Once the philosophy and the rationale for the approach become acceptable, the details and specifics will be elaborated.
These days I receive numerous letters from Republican politicians. They point to the crucial importance of the current period for the future of America. The politicians also ask for contributions. They appeal to people like me—a retiree who lives on Social Security. How much money can people like me or I give? Is it comparable to what individuals like Soros, Gates, Zuckerberg, and others can give with a stroke of a pen? The answer is ‘no’. What we can give is nothing in comparison to what those money bags can give.
But we can give immeasurably more. We can offer our minds, our enthusiasm, and, most importantly, our enormous creative potential for the future of this country. It is certainly worthwhile to explore new possibilities, particularly if the old ones offer little chance. These new possibilities may appear less tangible than cold cash, but this impression is deceptive.
There is nothing more powerful in this world than creative minds inspired by noble goals.
Dr. Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History, Bard College.