Another practice: money is not the key to political success (2023)

by Gennady Shkliarevsky, Professor Emeritus

Today I received the following letter in my mailbox, signed by Speaker McCarthy:


Nancy Pelosi just spearheaded a MASSIVE multi-state fundraiser with Hakeem Jeffries and her top cronies...

Pelosi may be out of hammer, but DO NOT underestimate her swampy plans.

She is LIVID that we have retaken Congress and are recruiting every last Hollywood elitist and liberal mega-donor to inundate my colleagues and I with dark money attacks!

Now that Pelosi knows she has nothing to lose, she and her left-wing supporters are bolder than ever. They will do ANYTHING to stop us.

This means we need all hands on deck NOW to counter their black money spree so we can block Pelosi and Schumer's radical plans once and for all.

Our war chests are EMPTY after a tough election season - we are defenseless.


I am pleased that the Republicans, with the help of the American people, have finally denied control of the House to the corrupt clique of Democrats led by Pelosi. I admire the work and dedication of Speaker McCarthy, Representative Gaetz, Representative Jordan and other committed Republicans to consolidating Republican gains. But there is room for criticism and improvement.

Democrats have often portrayed Republicans as conservatives who don't offer much innovation. This criticism is not entirely unfounded. In fact, inertia prevails most of the time in the Republican camp. Republicans are notoriously less proactive than their rivals.

The situation in the Republican Party began to change with the election of Donald Trump, who seized on the discontent of the American people and captured the presidency. However, Trump's policies as president did not go far beyond traditional republicanism.

He emphasized the same tax and spending cuts as many Republican candidates before him. However, there was one aspect of Trump's political practice that differed dramatically from traditional Republican practice; and that aspect actually scared many Republicans. Trump made a direct connection to his supporters. This step was fabulously successful. It still is. Even though Trump was defeated, he still held mass rallies that drew enormous crowds and kept him in the public eye. Nevertheless, they make him a credible candidate for the next elections.

The success of Trump's rallies was due not only, and not so much, to his personality. It represents a new trend that is gaining momentum in politics today. This emerging trend is linked to a new political awareness and activism among the American people. It is the result of the rapidly changing technological, social and economic conditions in our country and the world.

Americans pay much more attention to politics today. They realize that their lives depend vitally on their participation in the political process as self-governing and autonomous individuals. In short, today's Americans don't want anyone to speak for them; They want to be heard and have their own voice.

Interestingly, this very trend contributed to the popularity and success of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Sanders created a momentum that was eventually successfully stifled by the Democratic bigwigs.

In his politics, Trump intuitively grasped the political potential of the new trend and used it successfully. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has not developed his intuition into a comprehensive and coherent new practice. He acted more by trial and error than a well thought out plan that had a solid foundation. Trump is largely an improviser and experimenter, more of a systematic political practitioner.

The new Republican-majority leaders in the House of Representatives are much more focused on details. Republicans form and fill various committees in the House of Representatives and begin to announce their political agenda. They also understand the need to communicate with the public. You are very active on social networks.

However, they do not venture far to formulate and exploit the new possibilities in the world of American politics. The above letter from Speaker McCarthy is instructive in this regard. McCarthy demonstrates his adherence to the traditional approach to elite politics, in which leaders formulate the agenda, communicate it to the public, and then solicit input from the people to advance that agenda.

Ordinary people essentially play the role of passive supporters whose main function is to make financial contributions. This approach essentially puts Republicans in a position to compete with Democrats when it comes to filling the war chests.

It's the same monetary policy that has made the Democrats so successful. Democrats have built and exploited strong connections between business elites and tech giants and have them firmly in their pockets. I very much doubt that the young Republican lions can beat the Democrats at this game. The way they use their base is cumbersome and inefficient: working with small contributions is much more difficult than reaching out to support a few wealthy people. But more importantly, this practice does not allow the Young Turks to take advantage of new opportunities offered by the realities of the modern world.

After all, history teaches us that money is not the only and even the most important key to political success. There have been many examples in American history when winners were not those with the most money. John Bowden Connolly, for example, had more money under his belt in the 1980 election than any other Republican candidate, including Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, he had to withdraw his application after the first primaries. Closer to our time, Donald Trump certainly had less money than Hillary Clinton did when he beat her in 2016.

Why do politicians need money? They need money to get their message out to the public through political advertising and mass media. You have to convince people to secure their support. This is the old political practice. Vertical, hierarchical interactions play the dominant role in elite politics. The public does not participate in formulating the agenda, so people must be persuaded to support it.

Another practice: money is not the key to political success (1)

But there is another way, a very different political practice that maintains a balance between hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions. When the general public participates in formulating the agenda, politicians don't have to convince people to support them because people were involved in setting the agenda. When people participate in formulating the agenda, they will not vote against it and will willingly work to promote that agenda.

Some might say that this approach is utopian. I guess at the end of the 18th century many thought that the quest for American independence was a utopian endeavour. There is no doubt that the proposed new practice raises many detailed questions that need to be answered. There are many details that need to be clarified. But all this is a matter of technique. Once the philosophy and rationale for the approach are acceptable, the details and specifics will be worked out.

These days I receive numerous letters from Republican politicians. They point to the critical importance of the present period for America's future. Politicians are also asking for contributions. You're addressing people like me -- a retiree living on Social Security. How much money can people like me or I give? Is it comparable to what individuals like Soros, Gates, Zuckerberg and others can give with the stroke of a pen? The answer is no'. What we can give is nothing compared to what these moneybags can give.

But we can give infinitely more. We can offer our wits, our enthusiasm and above all our enormous creative potential for the future of this country. It is definitely worth exploring new possibilities, especially when the old ones offer few opportunities. These new opportunities may seem less tangible than cash, but that impression is deceptive.

There is nothing more powerful in this world than creative minds inspired by noble goals.


dr Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College.



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