“Hi, you’ve reached Bradley Tusk. Please leave a message—unless you’re a candidate for office seeking a contribution. In that case, please don’t leave a message.” That’s the outgoing voicemail on my phone. I wish it weren’t.
I don’t know about you, but I am inundated with solicitations for campaign contributions. They come in every conceivable form—calls from candidates, emails from candidates, emails from campaigns, texts from both candidates and campaigns—and that doesn’t even start to account for fundraising on social media.
Yes, it’s annoying. Really annoying. But the problem goes much deeper. The constant need to raise cash further erodes faith in our elected officials, our faith in government, our faith in the political system. When every candidate is endlessly begging for money across every media platform imaginable, it cheapens them. It turns Congress, state legislatures, City Councils, City Halls, Governor’s offices—even the White House—into a bunch of desperate carnival barkers. CSPAN has morphed into the Home Shopping Network.
And it gets worse. You can’t just issue a fundraising appeal based on your qualifications or ideas. That doesn’t work anymore. So you have to find specific ways to scare the recipient into donating. Republicans have to threaten that if you don’t send $20, Bernie Sanders will raise the tax rate to 99%—or, god forbid, that Donald Trump will be personally disappointed. Democratic subject lines, always warning of some Handmaid’s Tale-inspired apocalypse, are equally pathetic: “Bradley, this is our worst nightmare.” “This is your last chance.” “We’re running out of time.” Or they invent some absurd occasion like “It’s Steny Hoyer’s birthday! Give $10.” Who cares? We’re stuck in a race to the bottom on both sides that is making our political system more dysfunctional, more polarized, more awful in every way.
At the moment, it’s like any arms race. My consulting firm is advising Andrew Yang’s campaign for Mayor in New York City, and we do it too. But if we changed the rules, we could give all candidates, from both parties, an opportunity to stop debasing themselves and regain their dignity. When they were a kid dreaming of becoming Governor one day, odds are that sending out mass emails begging people to chip in $3 to elect them so they can stop the aliens from invading wasn’t part of the fantasy. So even if candidates find the new rule inconvenient, if they take the time to think about it, they may actually appreciate it—because it saves them from themselves.
So let’s help them. To start, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) should create a version of the Do Not Call list, where anyone can opt out of all solicitations and communications from candidates for office at any time. The First Amendment makes it impossible to enact an outright ban, but an opt-in list should be fine. Make that option available to every American, on-line 24/7, and disqualify any candidate who violates the rule (that would put a stop to the problem very quickly). The FEC likely doesn’t have jurisdiction to impose the same rule on every state and local election, so we need Secretaries of State and Election Directors to follow suit.
While the lawmaker who proposes this will be reviled by their colleagues, legislating this ban is good policy and better politics. No voter likes getting constant solicitations. It may be the single issue in Congress with the least interest from members but the most bipartisan support from actual voters. And if you ask voters if they’d rather spend some taxpayer money on public financing for campaigns or if they’d rather be constantly harassed—and, even worse, have their elected officials remain dependent on every special interest—they’d choose the former. Citizens United may mean that private money in campaigns isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to even the scales.
Obviously there are far bigger problems facing society than undignified and annoying texts from desperate politicians. But it does speak to the underlying reasons why our government is so ineffective, so distrusted, so disliked, so incapable. Banning solicitations isn’t a solution to our biggest problems but it is a way to start restoring trust in government again, to get more substantive people to run for office, and to make the entire process of running for office more appealing and less demeaning.
In fact, just to make it a little sweeter, I’ll personally max out to any candidate running for Secretary of State or any office that oversees local elections who supports this idea. I’ll even do the same for the lead sponsor of legislation banning political solicitations. You won’t even have to leave me a voicemail to collect.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist. One of his firms, Tusk Strategies, is advising Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor of New York City.