A neglected aspect of a lot of political commentary is that political activism is only partially about politics, policy, and ideology. It’s also a business. In extreme cases, a fraudulent business as in this great story by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns about independent expenditure PACs that raise money from small donors claiming to be supporting or defeating certain candidates but really just paying themselves.
Here’s perhaps the most egregious example:
In the presidential race, too, a handful of outside groups have popped up to raise millions of dollars and spend them with jaw-dropping inefficiency. Perhaps the best example is a group dubbed Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a rebooted version of the Tea Party Express, which spent heavily in Senate races in the 2010 cycle. In the 2012 election, Our Country Deserves Better has collected $7.8 million, so far, with more than three-quarters of that money coming in through small increments that the FEC does not itemize.
On its website, the group says it is “leading the fight” against liberal policies in Washington for Americans who want to “stand up to Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress.”
Despite its robust fundraising, Our Country Deserves Better PAC has reported just $488,907 in independent expenditures. A full 91.6 percent of its revenue went to “other federal operating expenditures” — fundraising expenses, travel and other overhead costs.
Very little that happens in the advocacy world is that much of a scam. But there’s a full continuum. I think of things like the enormous surge in lobbying expenditures by soda companies in 2009. It’s true that this succeeded in stopping a tax on sugary sodas from being one of the Obamacare pay-fors. On the other hand, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you’d have gotten the exact same outcome with no lobbying expenditures. Nobody in the progressive advocacy community was organizing for a soda tax, and the only people in DC who were taking it remotely seriously were the lobbyists and advocates trying to get soda companies to pay them to kill the tax. The whole thing was based on a random leaked memo from a Senate Finance Committee staffer and there was never any evidence that any policymakers ever intended to do this.
That said, it’s not like interest group lobbying is irrelevant to policy decisions on soda or anything else. It’s just to say that surrounded the whole world of lobbying, advocacy, and campaigning is a lot of money and a lot of people trying to get that money. Politics is, among other things, a business and a big part of the business is drumming up donations rather than using them well.