Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath raised more than $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign against Mitch McConnell. It is reportedly the most money ever raised in the first 24 hours of a Senate campaign.
The people who donated may as well have lit their money on fire. Unless Mitch McConnell is found to have dated teenagers while in his thirties, McGrath is losing, probably in a landslide.
McGrath is trying to defeat an incumbent senator in a presidential election year in a state that will almost certainly vote for the president of the incumbent’s party, which is a historical longshot. The specifics of this race look even worse. McGrath lost a House race in 2018 in Kentucky’s least-Republican district by more than 10,000 votes in what was nationally a really good midterm for Democrats. Indeed, she lost while raising $8 million to Rep. Andy Barr’s $5 million. By contrast, in 2014, McConnell beat a popular statewide officeholder by 16 points.
As noted Twitter trollmaster Comfortably Smug observes, Dems seem poised to “pull an Ossoff,” referring to the Democrats’ record-shattering loss of the 2017 special election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. Democrats appear to have learned no lesson from the fact the seat narrowly flipped their way in 2018 outside the frenzied atmosphere of the special election.
Why? As the Joker put it while literally burning a huge pile of cash in “The Dark Knight” (2008): “It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message…” Here, the message is #DitchMitch and so the money must be burned, even though it won’t add much to the hashtag.
But that explanation only scratches the surface. Money in campaigns goes mostly to advertising and the saturation point, let alone an amount sufficient to broadcast a message, is pretty easily reached. What is the point of turning campaigns into the performance art of protest? Answering this seemingly simple question becomes a tour of what’s wrong with American politics.
For decades, representatives and senators have ceded much of their power to the executive and judicial branches. Our politics are so polarized that spending bills are about the only legislation that pass Congress. Our news media, desperate for an audience, frames politics as infotainment.
The result is a political class more concerned about their next tweet or cable news segment than legislating. Granted, there is a long history of politicians using the bully pulpit in the hopes of getting results without legislation; it is not always a bad thing. Yet we have now reached the point where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complains that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to distract her from her true calling as a social media gadfly by giving her important committee work.
This sad state of affairs may also be traced to various populist “reforms” weakening our political parties over the course of decades (in this case, so-called campaign finance reform). Absent strong parties, the internet has shifted greater financial power to an activist class currently more obsessed with performative outrage than winning. And outrage culture is itself partly the product of a confluence of technology with the decline of institutions beyond Congress and the major political parties. People feel less connected to organized religions, civic organizations, or local government.
The effect of the internet, like radio and television before it, has been to further nationalize politics. But the internet, unlike these prior technologies, is corrosive to the idea of a common culture outside national politics. The Founders created an extended republic with the idea of countering faction; the internet puts the idea of faction on steroids.
In this environment, politics have become more symbolic, more religious. The concurrent rise of identity politics also fuels this dynamic. Political donations become less a rational calculation about winning or losing a particular contest than the desire to support a church when the collection plate is passed.
Otherwise irrational political giving may also be seen as a form of social or quasi-religious iconoclasm. Special elections once attracted national interest as a bellwether for the midterms. Yet a torrent of out-of-district donations to Jon Ossoff flooded in not because the young documentarian would shift the balance in Congress or because he had any charisma. Rather, Ossoff was the symbol of Democratic resistance to President Trump.
Similarly, the midterm mania for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke has not translated to his presidential campaign. Why? Everyone had heard the siren song about turning Texas blue enough times to realize it would almost certainly end with a crash on the rocks. The passion for Beto was driven by his status as the chosen champion against Sen. Ted Cruz, an icon of conservatism who needed to be toppled.
So it is with McConnell, who became the Democrats’ designated bogeyman at their first primary debates (he may have been discussed as much as President Trump). In the past, McConnell has jokingly likened himself to Darth Vader, prompting a so-unbiased New York Times reporter to paint McGrath as Luke Skywalker. The metaphor not only reframes politics as entertainment, but as the classic religious struggle of Jedi against Sith.
Of course, Vader beat Skywalker in their first battle, and Skywalker later would have been destroyed by the Emperor without Vader’s intervention. Not that this bad metaphor will stop Democrats from throwing good money after bad at McGrath. After all, what is a religious battle without faith?