Long before candidates for public office give their first stump speech, they go to school.
Candidate school, that is.
There are countless consulting operations that run these training programs. A few have some unique wrinkles, but for the most part they are assembly lines that churn out cookie-cutter candidates. And they all emphasize the development of one skill over all others: Fundraising prowess.
These schools teach from the same curriculum. Central to the course material is getting would-be candidates over the perfectly natural discomfort with asking people for money. Candidates are coached on how to see this grubby chore as a blessing . . . how they are really giving people a glorious gift by inviting them to invest in such a noble cause. They are taught not only to be shameless about fundraising but to actually take pride in their newfound shamelessness. In a nutshell, they are trained to see their fellow citizens as little more than ATMs.
They are taught that the first stage of any campaign is all about raising money. Next the candidate has to raise more money while trying to get some media attention and lining up endorsements and such. Then the candidate has to juggle still more fundraising with campaign appearances. The consultants pretty much take it from there, tapping into the war chest to produce and air the attack ads and record the get-out-the-vote robocalls and pay themselves for services rendered.
If democracy is to be released from the captivity of legal bribery, one key to unlocking the cage is finding people willing to break from convention and seek office without the benefit of a lot of money, and then empowering them to do so successfully. It can be done, and has been done, and a formula for doing it has to be developed and taught.
In no particular order, successful low-budget campaigns by unconventional candidates will have to:
1. Run against the establishment. Most Americans hate politics and politicians. Most dislike both major parties with a considerable passion. Even when running in a partisan contest as a Republican or Democrat, be the clear anti-establishment choice.
2. Stand for the “little guy.” Make privilege the enemy. Make fighting economic and political privilege the issue. Most voters see both the political system and economy stacked against them. They see both politics and economics working well for a few at the expense of everyone else. Embrace what they see.
3. Give voters undivided attention and donors the cold shoulder. Conventional politicians do the exact opposite. The way to beat conventional politicians is to spend an hour mingling with voters for every hour they are on the phone with donors or rubbing elbows with lobbyists at fundraisers.
4. Form a standing army of volunteers. If your campaign isn’t money-powered, it needs to be people-powered. Instead of begging for money, beg for other forms of help like knocking on doors, making phone calls and organizing house parties and neighborhood gatherings.
5. Have a BIG IDEA or two. Money is a form of political capital, and it’s the only one recognized by conventional politicians. Provocative ideas are an alternative form of political capital, as are organized people. Consultants teach conventional candidates to play it safe and avoid saying or doing anything controversial. Defeating convention will necessarily involve risk. Today’s candidate schools focus on training candidates to be comfortable hitting people up for money. Unconventional candidates need to learn how to get comfortable urging people to think outside the box. They have to make friends with controversy.
A big reason our political system is broken is because candidates for office are being systematically trained in the use of destructive weapons. What is learned can be unlearned. What is taught can be taught differently. Those destructive weapons can be traded in for constructive tools.