These notes were inspired by informal discussions initiated by “Positive Agenda” Group of Silicon Valley Courageous Resistance (SVCR). They should be of interest to all people and organizations sharing the common goal of building the better and stronger America – an America that will:
- Maintain a decent standard of living and basic human rights and freedoms for all Americans.
- Improve the quality of life for majority of Americans.
- Strengthen our positions in all areas: science and technology, economic development, education, healthcare, environment, international leadership, etc.
Most Americans would probably agree that these goals are sensible and desirable. The roadblock? Big Money has hijacked our political system. Financial and business elites have the power to dictate the political agenda. Election campaigns are so expensive that candidates running for any office cannot afford to say or do anything that would upset their big donors. Even those who rely on small donations, like Bernie Sanders and other progressive candidates, are forced to invest a lot of time and energy in fundraising.
Can something be done? Efforts to legislatively overrule the “Citizens United” decision deserve support but for these efforts to succeed, we need more politicians who are independent of Big Money, and that’s unlikely while Big Money rules. We need to address the problem at its core: the high cost of elections.
It’s time to challenge the common wisdom that political campaigns have to be expensive. To remove the Big Money roadblock, we must embrace the radical idea of zero-cost elections.
The Internet runs mostly on Linux, the zero-cost operating system that was developed as “open source” software. Linux is a labor of love for thousands of developers, who collaborate as peers without any financial rewards.
Many political groups rely on volunteers, readily sharing small expenses but not collecting any significant funds. The same model can be used to support a new wave of grassroot candidates ready to challenge the establishment. If the political process becomes a labor of love for thousands volunteers, the spell of Big Money over our democracy will be broken. The same people who volunteer for one candidate will likely support other candidates with similar views. This enthusiastic base of support can propel to power at the local, state, and federal levels a whole cohort of honest candidates with novel and creative ideas.
In order to inspire thousands volunteers, these candidates need to propose a bold and compelling vision of our future, based on the ideas similar to The Real Agenda for Working People and platforms of Brand New Congress, Our Revolution, and other organizations supporting a new generation of political leaders.
This vast volunteer base of support would likely include many overlapping groups and organizations with different agendas but sharing many common goals and values. This diversity will help candidates obtain endorsements from multiple organizations. At the same time, many of these groups can reduce their operational costs by creating a common web-platform that can be used to support multiple candidates. This shared platform can include a common calendar of events, options to submit and rank policy ideas, and tools to schedule meetings with candidates or their teams. An option to contribute may also be provided, but should be coupled with full financial reporting and options to choose where contributions will go.
One of especially useful online tools is VoterCircle that allows to run very effective friend-to-friend outreach campaigns while reducing their costs by orders of magnitude compared to traditional voter outreach methods.
Zero-cost election campaign cannot succeed based solely on the Internet and social media. It has to use all ways of connecting to voters. It should literally try to knock on every door, listen to every voter, answer every question, and address every concern. This is the most impactful method of persuading people, successfully used by KnockEveryDoor and others. It is also the best way to learn about voters’ concerns and ideas.
There is no need to hire high-paid “political consultants.” Sympathetic experts will advise for free; those who aren’t sympathetic are probably not trustworthy. A large pool of volunteers will likely include a few bright data scientists and sociologists, who could crunch the data and create useful predictive models for election campaigns and perhaps do research in process.
TV ads, one of the biggest costs of a typical election campaign, are not necessary and can even be counterproductive. YouTube videos can be posted at little or no cost and may go viral. If negative TV ads appear, instead of countering them on TV, a candidate’s supporters can play them at meetings with voters and debunk them. More negative ads will create more opportunities to educate voters.
Zero-cost elections don’t need fundraising events. Asking for a money in order to attend a campaign event looks really bad. It’s fine to ask at the end of successful event for small donations to offset reasonable expenses, such as the cost of renting a meeting room. But even these costs can be almost eliminated by using community parks, squares, properties owned by volunteers, etc. as free meeting places.
It can help if the candidates make clear that they are running zero-cost campaign and refuse to play by the rules set by Big Money. In this case the strength of campaign could be measured by the number of volunteers and the number of people who pledged to vote for the candidate, instead of irrelevant fundraising metrics.
The fight between zero-cost election campaign and a traditional Big Money campaign is like the biblical battle between David and Goliath. Most people, when they see a fight like this, instinctively feel more sympathy with David. This is a very powerful sentiment that will work in our favor. Besides that, we all know who was the winner in that historic battle…
Michael Abramson is a physicist specializing in numerical simulations, and a concerned citizen involved in several political groups in Silicon Valley.