The new Congress is starting its work amid calls for a new era of civility in politics. But early in the new session, even in the wake of an assassination attempt that left six dead in Arizona, there’s little sign that the partisan rancor is softening.
And there’s likely a simple reason: Civility doesn’t pay.
From Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) now infamous outburst to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) eight-and-a-half-hour personal filibuster, the politics of the extreme have produced provocative headlines, viral Web videos, looping cable news coverage and cult-like followings on the right and left. All this, coupled with advances in Web-based technology, fuels a booming fundraising industry that has generated millions of dollars for politicos and interest groups of all shapes and sizes.
The money comes in so fast at times that candidates don’t know what to do with it.
Tea-party-backed Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who in December likened the extension of unemployment benefits to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, saw her website crash amid a flood of donations when she won the Delaware primary last fall. In the subsequent weeks, she would have to hire a special fundraising consultant to guide spending decisions in the unpredictable world of online “money bombs,” in which some politicians raked in more than $1 million in a single day.
“She went from raising no money to lightning in a bottle very quickly,” said the consultant, Carolyn Machado, a principal at Machado & Co. who believes that a “nontraditional” Internet fundraising model had replaced the campaign finance committees and house parties.
O’Donnell relied instead on firing anti-Obama rhetoric on Fox News and conservative talk radio. And her consultants quickly learned to predict the Internet fundraising impact of such media appearances, although they were reluctant to share specific numbers with Roll Call.
Having raised just $62,500 in her first Senate bid, O’Donnell would ultimately raise $7.3 million in a 2010 losing effort, largely in the seven weeks between her GOP primary and the general election. The majority of her receipts — $4.9 million — came in the form of donations of less than $200, many of them funneled through her website.
This new model feeds off extreme rhetoric. And the examples — from both parties — are pervasive from coast to coast.
Just hours before the Arizona shootings, the conservative Life & Liberty PAC distributed a fundraising message depicting a clip-art image of a man holding a gun to the heads of two elderly figures, one using a cane. Titled “ObamaCare Death Panels in Effect January 1, 2011,” the message offered a quote ascribed to the president beneath the violent image: “Maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller.”
PAC Chairwoman Mary Lewis asked supporters to contribute to the political organization at the end of the message: “The sanctity of life for the elderly, disabled, vulnerable, poor and infirm must be protected!” she wrote.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Sanders became an instant liberal hero for his one-man filibuster as Congress debated the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts last month. He refused to stop talking or even sit down for eight hours and 36 minutes, later earning the nickname “Filibernie” and a massive Internet following.
His office reported receiving more than 10,000 phone calls and 9,000 e-mails — the vast majority were supportive — in the three days after his fete, which dominated the 24-hour cable news cycle and Twitter. Sanders’ Twitter followers jumped and his Facebook “likes” ballooned. That might be why Sanders inked a deal to publish the full text in a new book.
The Democratic fundraising site ActBlue hosted multiple fundraising portals that capitalized on Sanders’ newfound fame. One fundraising page, “Back-up Bernie Sanders,” raised more than $82,500 for the Senator and like-minded interest groups from more than 4,100 individual donors.
Sanders, facing re-election in 2012, would later draw the ire of conservatives for distributing a separate fundraising appeal after the Arizona attack.
“Given the recent tragedy in Arizona, as well as the start of the new Congress, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few words with political friends in Vermont and throughout the country,” Sanders wrote in a fundraising e-mail three days after the shootings that left six dead and badly wounded Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. “I also want to thank the very many supporters who have begun contributing online to my 2012 reelection campaign at www.bernie.org. There is no question but that the Republican Party, big money corporate interests and right-wing organizations will vigorously oppose me.”
Sanders wasn’t alone in linking the violence to campaign cash.
The Tea Party Express began a fundraising effort two days after the shootings asking supporters to help them fight against “liberals” who are attempting to link their movement to the events in Arizona. “Tea Party Won’t Be Silenced After Shooting,” read the fundraising e-mail obtained by Roll Call.
Indeed, the Internet has allowed political rhetoric to become instant fundraising fodder in recent years, often in the name of opposing “extreme” ideas.
ActBlue spokesman Adrian Arroyo notes that Democrats seized on Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2008 call to investigate liberals’ patriotism on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” Her opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, raised roughly $350,000 in the next week through an ActBlue page.
Arroyo said that fundraising totals are directly tied to media coverage.
“It’s not the vituperative nature of the comments that’s decisive, in our experience,” he said. “What matters is the size of the stage on which they’re uttered. When people find out about Bachmann’s comments, or Joe Wilson’s shout, they want a way to indicate their disapproval, and ActBlue is a consequential way for them to do that.”
There was perhaps no bigger stage for Wilson than President Barack Obama’s nationally televised health care address in September 2009.
The Congressman shouted, “You lie!” in the middle of the speech, an interruption that was sharply condemned by Congressional leaders of both parties immediately afterward. But in the days after he heckled the president, Wilson raised more than $1 million, thanks in part to a high-profile Internet campaign on the Drudge Report and elsewhere.
The Wilson remark continues to prove profitable well over a year later.
A South Carolina gun company, the Palmetto State Armory, recently began offering semi-automatic rifle parts with the inscription, “You lie.”
The gesture was meant to “honor our esteemed congressman Joe Wilson. Only 999 of these will be produced, get yours before they are gone!” according to a message on the company’s website that since has been taken down.
It’s unclear how many of the parts, made for the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, were sold. Days after the promotion caught fire on the liberal blogosphere, Palmetto State Armory suspended the sale.
The gun business is not the only industry to profit from extreme rhetoric. There’s little doubt that it drives ratings and, thus, advertising dollars for media companies.
The Democratic Party is “a party that seeks to profit out of murder” and “openly wishes for such disaster in order to profit from it,” conservative talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh said just two days after the Arizona shootings.
Limbaugh has the highest-rated talk radio show in the nation, drawing an estimated 15 million listeners a week. Fox News host Sean Hannity is second, with 14 million weekly radio listeners (in addition to 2 million to 3 million each night on television).
It’s unclear what effect that rhetoric has on the political process. But it clearly bothered Giffords, according to an e-mail she sent a colleague the night before she was shot in the head.
“After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation,” she wrote to Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state Trey Grayson. “I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
Sen Mary Landrieu, D-La., poses for a selfie with LSU football fans as she campaigns at tailgate parties on the Louisiana State University campus before the LSU-Mississippi State game on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Buy photo here.