Column: How small donors have become a destructive, dividing force in American politics

Kari Lake, shown with former President Trump at a rally in October 2022.
Kari Lake, shown with former President Trump at a rally in October 2022, lost the race for Arizona governor but has built a strong national following, including with small donors, that stretches far beyond the state.
(Matt York / Associated Press)
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There’s an approach to political questions that the conservative in me rebels against. Let’s call it the “You can’t have too much of a good thing” fallacy.

Virtually every popular idea in American life has cheerleaders for this fallacy. You’ve surely heard someone say something like: “The only cure to the problems with free speech is more speech.” Or: “You can never have too much inclusion or diversity.”

Broadly speaking, I take the opposing point of view on nearly all such claims. This doesn’t mean I oppose free speech or diversity any more than I oppose cheesecake or Scotch. Rather, I subscribe to the view that life, and especially politics, is full of trade-offs. All medicines or poisons are determined by the dose.


Nowhere does this longstanding view earn me more grief than when the subject of democracy comes up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of democracy. I just don’t think it’s the answer to every problem any more than hammers are the right tool for every DIY project.

For years, I’ve opposed lax rules about mail-in voting and other trends that make voting too easy. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I think deadlines are really useful and having an election day (or even an election weekend) that means something would be better. I think lowering the voting age is a ridiculous idea. Our 50-year-old experiment with democratizing candidate selection — the primary system as we know it today — has gone awry.

Such arguments were once well-received on the right and absolutely loathed on the left. They’re still mostly loathed on the left, but in this populist age they’re increasingly despised on the right, too.

For instance, last week on CNN, I made a fairly conventional point about the distorting effects of the rise in small donors for democracy. Candidates who depend on small donors tend to take more polarizing positions. In part because they don’t care much about electability, they push their party to more extreme stances, making the party “brand” less appealing to moderates.

Such observations are not particularly controversial among experts. Election expert Richard Pildes writes, “One of the most robust findings in the empirical campaign-finance literature is that individual donors are the most ideological and polarizing sources of money flowing to campaigns.”

You don’t have to be a political scientist to see this. Democrats routinely waste millions on ideologically “blue state” candidates in “red” states — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Amy McGrath in Kentucky — who pander to the views of liberal out-of-state donors rather than more conservative but persuadable in-state voters.


On the right, small donations tend to flow to candidates and grifters vowing to wage war on the mythological all-powerful “establishment.” After she lost her bid for Arizona governor, Kari Lake raked in $2.5 million, 80% of which came from out of state. She promised to spend the money on court challenges to her “stolen” election but barely spent $1 for every 10 on that effort.

As uncontroversial as this is in the real world, it’s now heresy in certain quarters of the right, particularly among those who make a living trying to keep small donors angry enough to provide a credit card number.

For instance, in response to my CNN comments, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) claimed I’m just angry that the fat cats I allegedly depend on have lost their influence in politics. I laughed not just because Vance’s candidacy was launched with $10 million of his former billionaire boss Peter Thiel’s money but also because, last year, the newly pro-Donald Trump Vance insisted that the GOP’s “red wave” failed to materialize not because of Trump’s meddling but because of the baleful power of Democratic small donors.

A common refrain among my dyspeptic critics is that small donors are enriching democracy by participating. Obviously, this is true for plenty of individual small donors. But it leaves out the fact that, at scale, they cut out the parties and disproportionately reward performative rabble-rousers on the left and right. Again, the most ideologically polarized candidates monetize the most ideologically polarized small donors who in turn reward further polarization. This monetization of fear and outrage is a big business.

Most Americans don’t vote in primaries, religiously watch cable news or make small donations. But the tiny slice of Americans who do all three have captured the primary process, and because most candidates worry more about primary challenges than general election ones, this sliver has outsized influence over politics generally.

I’m not for banning small donors, but if you think polarization is a problem for democracy, then it’s hard for me to see how they’re not part of it.