January 18, 2020

Unlike mega-donors, micro-donors have no say over how funds get used; Bernie's campaign as a subscription entertainment series

One consequence of the Bernie campaign relying on small donors is that the people who provide the funding have no say over how it gets used -- either how their own particular micro-donation gets used, or how the total pile of funds gets allocated.

It is similar to the tithing that the lowest-level members of a church pay to their head officials, or the taxes that ordinary citizens pay to their government. You can opt out, but then you don't get the benefits of paying in -- you're out of the church, out of the citizenry. If you aren't a regular donor to a campaign that relies on micro-donations, then you're out of the "movement".

This funding mechanism is totally opposite to the mega-donor model. There, the people who make most of the money appear in the coffers have all sorts of strings attached -- general favors that can be called in later, or specific agenda items or strategies they want pursued by the recipients. The funding comes from above rather than below. And it is the recipients who will be "out of" something if the donor chooses not to pay -- the recipients need their patron more than he needs them, since he can find some other group to patronize.

For micro-donors, "voting with their dollars" is not control over the organization that they donate to. First, any single one of them has no favors that can be called in later on. And second, there is no way for an individual small donor to attach strings to their micro-donation.

Generally the donation does not even include a checklist of items for the micro-donor to express their priorities -- but even if there were, how would the micro-donor ever know what the aggregate priorities from all micro-donors was? And even then, how would a micro-donor know if the officials actually went ahead and spent the funds in the way expressed by that aggregate data on priorities? And even if they could find out how the funds were spent -- how would a micro-donor ever be able to hold the officials to account if they spent them against the wishes of the aggregate priority data?

If the strings were attached at an individual level, how could a specific micro-donor know how his particular funds were spent, let alone hold the organization to account if they went against his wishes?

In order for them to have any degree of control over the use of their funds, the small donors would have to form a collective that acted similar to a mega-donor. For example, individual workers forming a labor union, and the union donating to a campaign. That somewhat repeats the same problem -- how do the individual workers hold the union representatives to account? But it is less of a problem in degree because it is intermediate in scale -- it's easier for individual workers to hold their union to account than for individual donors to hold a national campaign to account.

Even if the unions form a large-scale, national-level federation like the AFL-CIO, that is still more accountable to individual workers because of the federated structure. For isolated individuals donating small amounts to a national campaign, there is nobody more powerful than you to operate on your behalf vis-a-vis the campaign. It's you or the campaign officials. With a union federation, there are various tiers of labor reps who can advance your priorities, if the senior federation officials are not behaving how you'd like.

And of course, sometimes those intermediate-level officials will get vetoed by the senior leadership. But at least it's your own senior leadership that is acting -- if their choices don't get results through political activity for the low-level workers, they know they'll start opting out and the senior leaders will be out of a job. Campaign officials are not working strictly to advance the interests of some group of workers like a union or federation is -- they're responding to pressure from all sorts of groups.

However much control you're delegating away in a labor federation, you're delegating even more away by micro-donating to a big campaign. There's practically no accountability at all.

This explains why there is so much frustration among Bernie's utilitarian micro-donors. Some will give blindly no matter what, and don't really care how it's used. But given that this is a supposedly revolutionary campaign, a larger-than-usual share of his micro-donors are giving money for practical reasons -- they want to see issues A, B, and C advanced, and they do not want to hear at all about issues X, Y, and Z. They want strategies 1, 2, and 3, but not strategies 7, 8, and 9.

Why isn't Bernie buying more TV ads in some state? Why is Bernie talking like a woketard about cultural issues, instead of slamming open borders as "a Koch Brothers proposal"? Why isn't he beating up on Lyin' Liz Warren?

"What the hell are we giving you all this money for, if you're not going to do as we say?" But then, there is no way for micro-donors to have a say in the allocation of funds at such a large scale. Hence the frustration.

It could be that the majority of his micro-donors do want Bernie to have less of a TV presence, to push woke issues, and to refrain from counter-punching his formidable attackers. But I fucking doubt it.

You see, there is somebody who's making these decisions -- but it is the campaign officials themselves, who have freed themselves of the mega-donor relationship, where they would be mere clients of a super-wealthy patron, but who have also freed themselves of accountability to micro-donors because of the lack of collective weight behind any one of their micro-donations. It is akin to actually existing communism, where the large private owners have been expropriated, but the professional-managerial class takes their place, while workers still have little control over what happens in the workplace or broader society.

The interests of the campaign officials is not necessarily the same as the individual donors, either separately or collectively. Especially in this case, where the campaign officials want to stay connected to the existing national-level patronage networks after this specific campaign is over. They want to work at some progressive think tank, speak on some progressive media show, earn a salary from some progressive politician or NGO, or whatever else.

What happens if micro-donors want Bernie to go no-holds-barred against his rivals, given how uphill his battle is? Or if they want Bernie to minimize the woke progressive crap (whether to accord with their own values, or on purely pragmatic concerns about alienating large numbers of potential supporters)? Suddenly the source of funding and the spenders of funding are diametrically opposed to each other, but unlike the mega-donor model, here it is the senior campaign officials who will veto the funders.

It's hard to tell what share of Bernie's micro-donors are these utilitarian donors who have no power and get frustrated, vs. how many are blind-faith donors who don't care if the actual allocation of funds produces certain results or not, who are donating more for expressive reasons.

I suspect the latter outnumber the former (with a third group who are neither, all being under 50%). Indeed, the most similar model here is not tithing to a church or paying taxes to a government, which do produce some kind of material results for the funders, however much they may grumble about them. No, the most comparable model is a subscription to entertainment "content" -- we'll fund you enough to produce the content, and as long as it entertains us, we'll renew our subscription. If it gets too boring or veers off into gauche taste territory, then we'll cancel our subscription.

Contra their claims about wanting Bernie to be a commander-in-chief, or organizer-in-chief, they really want him to be a podcaster-in-chief -- not for conducting foreign policy a certain way, enforcing laws a certain way, etc., but to lead the charge in an informational war within the media-entertainment industry.

That is the second layer of frustration that the utilitarian Bernie donors must suffer -- the bewilderment upon seeing that a large chunk, maybe a majority, of their fellow regular donors don't seem to care one bit how the money gets spent, like it's all just paying into some indie filmmaker's kickstarter. If the movie's entertaining, we get bragging rights for producing it; if it's boring or gauche, well at least we tried to make something cool, more than can be said of those who didn't donate to it.

Ultimately this problem reduces to the class make-up of the Bernie donor pool -- although it is more working-class than other donor pools, that isn't saying much, and it is mainly not blue-collar workers, who would bring a utilitarian focus because they are hard-up, rather than a focus on being entertained because they're already comfortable economically. Temporarily struggling professionals, like AOC during her stint as a bartender, are not blue-collar workers. Their self-conception, ambitions, collective affiliation, and the rest, are squarely aimed at professional-class interests.

To bring about major economic changes, a realignment campaign cannot rely on micro-donations from professionals (aspiring or actual) who want an entertainment product. Little-guy funding must come from member-based organizations like labor unions and their federations, responding to the utilitarian interests of working-class people.

That will not change overnight; the point here is to explain why there is such apparent incompetence in the Bernie campaign, from the utilitarian working-class view. There must be some greater force at play, then. First, the agency problem of micro-donors vs. a national campaign staff. And second, the professional-class demand for a serial entertainment franchise that generates so much content that it can be binged all day, every day, with no boring lulls in the production schedule. The pool of micro-donors do not constitute a movement, but a fandom.

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