Opinion: Will withholding money from Democrats make them act?

When billions are spent trying to influence public policy, we, rightfully, condemn the buying of our democracy. The corrupting impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United has left our system of campaign financing in a shambles.

But that is a story long told and an arc we will bend toward justice over time.

Today, let’s discuss one impact of the failure of the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act” — the withholding of money from Democrats by some Democratic institutional players and its potential impact on long term change.

Last week, the New York Times reported that EMILY’s List, the premier bundler of money to pro-choice Democrats (including Mainers U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Governor Janet Mills), is threatening to withhold money from U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) for her vote to allow Republicans to block the voting rights bill.

On a similar but broader note, the New York Times confirmed last November that S. Donald Sussman, a hedge fund billionaire who has lived in or owned property on Deer Isle, North Haven, and in Brooksville, has halted his giving to Democrats and Democratic Super PAC’s until Congress passes the voting rights bill.

According to the Times, Sussman “…has communicated that he is pausing his political giving until [the Voting Rights] package advances…”

Obviously, neither of these tactics ended up moving Sinema (or Manchin, although we don’t know its impact on the similarly divided House members or on other Senate Democrats, all 48 of whom did vote the right way).

But could an economic boycott of Democrats work in the long run? Is there a way for those with the deepest pockets, or of small donors en masse, to influence change by withholding money?

If we starve the beast, our beast, of the fuel it has grown accustomed to receiving, will it get hungry enough to achieve the results we expect and need, or will it wither in famine?

Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know the current way has not worked. We own (and paid for) a majority in both branches of Congress and the White House. Yet in the past year votes for a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, universal pre-k, stronger unions, background checks, expanded health care, climate change, and so much else, have all failed.

These are not fringe ideas. They are in the Democratic Party Platform.

And just to be clear, I don’t absolve Republicans of their failure here. They are a party bereft of ideas or morals on every one of these policies (and much more). But we knew that already.

Certainly some may argue that unilaterally disarming Democrats for their failure to rise to the occasion may do serious damage to our country in the short term. Indeed, I have argued the same for years. But economic boycotts always involve the courage to withstand short-term sacrifice.

Take past boycotts for social change: South Africa in the 1980’s; grapes in the 1970’s; or the buses of Montgomery in the 1950’s. While all of these created short-term hardship in regard to jobs or public transit, in the long run they helped bring down apartheid, improve working condition for farm workers, and end segregation.

So is an economic boycott of the Democratic Party, or its wayward members, smart?

I certainly commend EMILY’s List and Sussman for their principled stand. And maybe they are onto something larger. If they follow through, and others join, I recognize that it means we may lose seats and even majorities. But maybe that will also be enough to motivate those few Democrats who have abandoned basic principles to finally step up on behalf of those in need.

Photo: Sen. Kristen Sinema | Gage Skidmore

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