Steve is endorsing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s campaign to convince “concerned Americans” to “withhold any further campaign contributions to elected members of Congress and the President until a fair, bipartisan deal is reached that sets our nation on stronger long-term fiscal footing.” If enough Americans took that pledge, Steve says, it might just be “the significant shock” needed to upset Washington’s current gridlock.
I’m skeptical. Consider the difference between a primary election and a general election. In primary elections, much of the middle is absent, and so politicians swing further left or right in order to pick up the remaining pool of voters. In general elections, the middle is present, and so politicians drift back toward the center. What Schultz wants is for politicians to pay more attention to the center, much as they do in general elections. But he wants to do this by making the money race less like a general election and more like a primary election.
So take a moderate senator who needs to raise $8 million to retain his seat. Imagine that he could normally raise about two-thirds of his total from the sort of middle-of-the-road voters and interest groups that Schultz is targeting. Now imagine that Schultz’s pledge is wildly successful and our moderate senator can only raise one-third of the $8 million from voters and interests in the middle. To make up the funding gap, he now needs to raise twice as much money from the ideological, polarized sources that Schultz believes are ruining Washington. Our moderate senator is about to become a lot less moderate.
There is, after all, money to be made in extremism. Earlier this year, Justin Buchler, a political scientist at Case Western University, developed an “infamy index” for American politicians. He measured infamy “through the frequency with which internet users conduct searches of legislators’ names, paired with epithets attacking their intelligence or sanity,” and then looked to see the effect that that infamy had on, among other things, political fundraising. The answer? It strongly affected political fundraising -- but positively. “Infamous legislators raise more money than their lower-profile colleagues.”
Schultz’s idea, in other words, doesn’t “starve the beast.” It just gives the more extreme elements of the political system sole responsibility for feeding it, and as such, encourages politicians to rely on them, and govern in a way that keeps them happy. Schultz would be better served by identifying the politicians he considers to be the problem and lavishly funding their challengers.