Mark Schmitt has replied effectively and thoughtfully to Ezra’s Klein’s warning about small donors and their politics. Klein contends that we are overlooking the polarizing tendencies of small contributions made by Americans at the extremes of our politics. He argues that, just as small donations are becoming the stuff of myth, big money, while more “corrupting,” gets less credit than it should for pushing against polarization: “Big money often wants the two parties to get along” whereas small money exacerbates political divisions. Schmitt questions Klein’s claims about the part that big or small fundraising plays in either promoting or lessening polarization—and he decries “cynicism about money and reform that seems to be infecting the wonk class.”

Schmitt does not mention another reason to resist the implications of Klein’s line of reasoning. Reform argument is most suspect when it judges the desirability of democratizing measures by the type of politics they produce. It is questionable to value expanded participation in principle, but only if, in application, it results in the politics we like. Either we value vigorous and widespread democratic engagement, or we do not. Outside the world of campaign finance reform, we have see this reasoning at work in certain of the calls for new, more stringent requirements of voter photo identification. So the dissenter in the Seventh Circuit’s Crawford decision believed when he wrote, famously, “Let’s not beat around the bush. The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.” Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 472 F.3d 949, 954(7th Cir., 2007)(Evans, J., dissenting).

These arguments have been regularly heard in campaign finance and the “right” has not been alone in making them. In the late 1970’s, when the Reagan years were on their way and the New Right was flexing its muscle, the “polarizing” effect of direct mail advocacy and small donor fundraising became an active topic of critical commentary among anxious progressives. One United States Senator, soon to lose his seat, wrote:

There has been considerable discussion and debate over the impact of generated mass mail. For my own part, I believe that the development and widespread use of this technique by countless special interests has changed not only the face but the very character of the American political process.

Thomas J. McIntrye, The Fear Brokers 91 (1979).

This is a great deal of weight to put on the political consequences of a “technique.” A controversial or contested turn in the nation’s politics is the product of many factors. The success of conservative Republicans in the ’70s and ’80s, reaching its apogee with the Reagan triumph, does not owe all that much to direct mail, polarizing “small donor” fundraising. The manner or yield of fundraising may have a place in describing the style or content of a particular brand of politics, but its descriptive value should not be confused with explanatory power.

Klein does agree that public financing programs that promote small donor giving have merit. He is not against small contributions. Being of the view that polarization is what most ails our politics, and holding small donors responsible in part for funding it, he is more than anything else cautioning against confusing the small donor with some “average American” of moderate political leanings. A reader might think this fair enough, a corrective to lazy thinking and political clichés. And, granted, the strong critical response from Schmitt reflects his own beliefs, which he correctly notes that I share, about the best direction for campaign finance reform—promoting wider participation through public financing incentives for small donations and innovative uses of technology to engage citizens in giving, organizing and voting.

But there is a long history of arguments for limiting democratic participation, or objecting to its expansion, on the grounds that an enlarged population of voters or contributors will favor the damnedest things. Klein’s doubts about “small” money feed such arguments when it would be best to put them aside.

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