Why I Donated to a Political Action Committee

Not too long ago, I found myself plunking down a good amount of cash—roughly what I spend on groceries for a month—to attend a political fundraiser. At first, I felt almost dirty considering it, but in the end, I decided to do it because it was a cause that is important to me. Being a young journalist, I don’t make a ton of money, especially not when Manhattan rent is factored in. But I stretched myself thin to support a cause that I care about.

Recently, politics has started to affect me. I paid rapt attention to the Supreme Court decision on healthcare reform, because if it was struck down, I would find myself suddenly without insurance—a place I hadn’t planned on being for at least two more years, when I hit the ripe age of 26. This worried me because I race bikes in my spare time. While I constantly assure my friends and family it’s perfectly safe to go zooming around tight corners in a pack of 40 women at 20+ miles per hour, accidents do happen. The occasional emergency room visit is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Even beyond emergency care, in the last six months, my insurance has saved me about 20 times my political donation in physical therapy bills due to recurring knee problems brought on by a decade and a half serious athleticism.

I had to ask myself: How much was I willing to spend to support the candidates that support me? I found a political action committee I liked, and I wrote a check (just kidding—I used my credit card, and got bonus airline miles, so I can afford to visit my parents and thank them for keeping me on their insurance plan). 

Why a PAC? PACs have a terrible reputation for flooding elections with disgusting amounts of money, particularly in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which held that corporations, unions, and individuals could spend unlimited funds on political advertisements via so-called “Super PACs.” That said, PACs and Super PACs are now a part of the political landscape, and its hard to get anywhere in this country’s political system without them. They have already poured millions into the 2012 campaign, and short of a constitutional amendment, it is hard to see them going away anytime soon. But there are plenty of PACs out there that support worthy causes, and if you want your money to support lesbian candidates and issues, or Catholic issues, or Cats for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow then a PAC is the way to go.

The problem—with PACs and politics more generally—is not that people give money to causes they support. The problem is that a very, very small number of people give a very, very large amount of money to the candidates and organizations they support. According to a recent article by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig in the Atlantic, only a tiny fraction of the population, .26 percent, give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. More than $10,000 is contributed by .01 percent, and less than 200 citizens (.000063 percent) have given more than three-quarters of the super PAC money that is flowing through the 2012 election cycle. These people aren’t the middle class, and they, with some notable exceptions, don’t have the interests of the middle class in mind when they fund campaigns (it’s generally more like how not to pay taxes).

So what would it take for many average people to match these uber-donors? Well, let’s say roughly 200 Americans shelled out $10 million each (as casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson did last month to a pro-Romney super PAC)—that’s $2 billion pumped into the campaign system. And let’s say the average person making the median income (around $40,000 per year) can comfortably afford about a $100 contribution (that’s maybe a weekend’s worth of bar tabs?). How many $100 contributions would you need to equal the $2 billion of the .000063 percent? Twenty million. Okay, that sounds like a lot, but in reality is less than ten percent of the population. If even one in ten people donated a healthy but affordable sum, they would match the multi-million-dollar contributions of the wealthiest donors.

But, if super PACs are what is wrong with the political campaign system, why donate to the system that keeps it going? Unfortunately, without spending the money to put candidates in office who support reform, there will never be any reform. The system can only change if someone—or a lot of someones—spends ridiculous amounts of cash to push money out of politics (Jonathan Soros is trying). Like it or not, it’s a capitalist system, and that’s the capitalist way.

Our generation has proven that we will go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for an education, which is supposed to be our key to the future. So why will we not spend a couple hundred dollars to support the candidates who do the most for us, and are dedicated to eventually reforming of our democratic system — the key to our country’s future*?

*Who those candidates/causes are is up to you.


Shane Ferro can only hope that her political opinions will one day be widely read and universally loathed. In the meantime, she is an art market editor at ARTINFO. She tweets and tumbls about art, bikes, economics, and wine. Photo: Shutterstock/Orhan Cam


19 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#22)

But they could do this before SuperPACs and Citizen’s United. CU struck down corporate (and union) donation limits, not individual donation limits.

@deepomega — author here. You are right, super PACs didn’t change things for individual donations. Maybe I should have been more clear. It’s not that the game has somehow been changed for individuals, they are just now up against a larger influx of money by corporations. Corporations are, essentially, the same as individuals now, just with generally deeper pockets, so there is even more money pouring into the system — lots of it devoted to maintaining the status quo as far as (lack of) campaign finance reform goes.

I’m sure the candidates who make it to office, in large part, due to the funds of super PACs will be more than happy to bite the very hand that fed them.

Though if you donate to the actual campaign, they NEVER. STOP. CALLING. As many of my coworkers can attest.

wearitcounts (#772)

@stuffisthings oh i know. i have a friend who once donated to a committee three years ago and has spent every week of the past three years trying unsuccessfully to unsubscribe from their mailing list. apparently, this is an actual impossibility.

@stuffisthings @wearitcounts I’m not above giving a fake email address and “accidentally” mistyping my phone number… Supporting a cause does not have to mean subjecting yourself to harassment. :)

Also, will you provide us a list of some of the reform-minded candidates? Which major candidates running in this election cycle have pledged to focus on serious campaign finance reform? And which SuperPACs are supporting those candidates?

@stuffisthings Here’s a start: http://www.acrreform.org/

@theinternetisforcats I notice that that site doesn’t list any candidates who have made credible promises to push hard for campaign reform if elected (or who are doing so now, and will continue if reelected). I also see no mention of a constitutional amendment to get around Citizens United — which Obama said he would support earlier this year. I believe Tom Udall has introduced such an amendment. What they do support: bills to improve public financing of elections, including the presidential public financing system that Obama abandoned in 2008. Unless we’re going to put billions of dollars into that system, it won’t do much.

It’s clear that both sides hate this new environment, but it’s a really hard cycle to break. I’m not sure if using PAC money to defeat PACs is the way forward — it sounds a bit like an alcoholic going on just one last binge before he sobers up for good.

[Intersting: I just looked up Udall and I see he has raised more than $718,000 from PACs (mostly unions), compared to $520,000 from individuals and a mere $59,000 from the State of New Mexico, presumably in public financing.]

@stuffisthings Oops, I do see that Bob Kerrey is involved in that group and is apparently seeking to get his old seat back.

@stuffisthings As I mentioned in the article, Jonathan Soros is putting a lot of money into it: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/the-super-pac-that-aims-to-end-super-pacs/, but more generally, there aren’t many candidates supporting campaign finance reform this election cycle. I’d imagine that they are too worried about biting the hand that feeds. But doing things like actively seeking out and supporting the organizations and candidates that do support it, and writing about it in the press, is certainly a step in the write direction. Anyway, I’m not making much sense because I’m at work and pretty soon someone is going to realize that I’m not actually looking at the art market corner of the internet. If you really want to press me on candidates/organizations I can get back to you tonight.

I also need to go find that episode of the West Wing where they stack the FEC with reform-minded people…not because it’s relevant but because it’s awesome.

@theinternetisforcats Well initially I was just being sarcastic, but your responses have actually been informative, so thank you. I still won’t be contributing money to any candidates or PACs (if I really wanted to do something, I’d walk a block down to K street and throw rocks at anyone in a nice suit) but if you do drop some names here others may find it quite useful. I’d probably drop a few bucks on Kerrey’s quixotic Senate run if I lived in Nebraska, for example.

@stuffisthings I’m just glad I haven’t gotten any “you are a total idiot” responses yet. I also wanted to reply for those reasons, for anyone who finds being pointed in the right direction helpful. But I’m unfortunately not coming up with much, which is only slightly embarrassing.

shallowpate (#1,701)

@stuffisthings Right now, there’s a real effort in New York State to get public financing of elections. It has the support of the governor and the state assembly, plus some rich people, but not, so far, the state senate. (The same with marriage equality before that passed, so…)

If you live in New York and want to show your support (or even if you don’t live in New York!), I’d encourage you to make a contribution to one of the key organizations behind the campaign: http://citizenactionny.org/

Sean Lai (#559)

@shallowpate The link for Citizen Action NY you posted is broken; I googled briefly and came up with this working link instead. Is this the right organization? http://usaction.org/ny/

shallowpate (#1,701)

@Sean Lai Huh, it’s not broken for me. Anyway, what you found is kind of the “parent” organization of the group I’m talking about, which is Citizen Action of NY.

Anarcissie (#1,703)

The action which affected politics most in the U.S. last year — it stopped the talk about gutting Social Security and Medicare dead in its tracks — was not a donation of money to a PAC or a politician, it was a few hundred people going into a park in downtown Manhattan and refusing to leave. They were soon joined by thousands of others, and the politicians wet their pants and started making populist noises (temporarily). Conclusion: you cannot outbid the rich, but you can apparently strike fear into the hearts of their underlings through direct action.

This is a very interesting discussion, but my question has to do with the math. Why, exactly, are we looking at comparing the number of donations to the number of Americans? Since there are wide swaths off American who can’t vote, it seems a better way to look at it would be the number of “donaters” as a share of the number of registered voters. Or perhaps “potential registered voters” (non-felony convicted citizens at least age 18).

The crowd will surprise. I do think the crowd can overtake the ultra rich when the have the right message to get behind.. check out our startup project which we hope will be the answer for people passionate about issues that the superPACs don’t address. http://www.grassmuscle.com.

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