November 30, 2022

Dear Political Candidates: Please Stop Calling Me

“Hi, you’ve reached Bradley Tusk. Please leave a message, unless you are applying for a position seeking input. In that case, please do not leave a message.” This is outgoing voicemail on my phone. I wish it weren’t.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inundated with solicitations for campaign contributions. They come in every form imaginable — candidate calls, candidate emails, campaign emails, candidate and campaign texts — and that’s not even taking social media fundraising into account.

Yes, it’s boring. Really annoying. But the problem is much deeper. The constant need to raise funds further erodes trust in our elected officials, our faith in government, our faith in the political system. When every candidate endlessly begs for money on every media platform imaginable, it belittles them. It turns Congress, state legislatures, city councils, town halls, governor’s offices – even the White House – into a bunch of desperate carnival barkers. CSPAN has transformed into a home shopping network.

And it gets worse. You cannot simply appeal for funds based on your qualifications or your ideas. It doesn’t work anymore. So you need to find specific ways to scare the recipient into donating. Republicans need to threaten that if you don’t send $20, Bernie Sanders will raise the tax rate to 99% or, God forbid, Donald Trump will be personally disappointed. Democratic subject lines, always warning of some Handmaid’s Tale-inspired by the apocalypse, are equally pathetic: “Bradley, this is our worst nightmare.” “This is your last chance.” “We are run out of time.” Or they make up an absurd occasion like “It’s Steny Hoyer’s birthday!” Donate $10. We do not care? We are stuck in a race to the bottom on both sides that makes our political system more dysfunctional, more polarized, more horrible in every way.

Right now it’s like any arms race. My consulting firm advises Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor of New York, and so do we. But if we changed the rules, we could give all candidates, from both parties, the opportunity to stop deteriorating and regain their dignity. When they were a kid dreaming of becoming governor one day, there’s a good chance sending mass emails begging people to donate $3 to elect them so they can stop the aliens from invading was not part of the fantasy. So even if the contestants 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. For starters, the Federal Election 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 suffice. Make this option available to all Americans, online 24/7, and disqualify any candidate who breaks the rule (this would end the problem very quickly). The FEC probably doesn’t have jurisdiction to impose the same rule in every state and local election, so we need secretaries of state and chief election officers to follow suit.

While the lawmaker who proposes this will be reviled by their colleagues, legislating this ban is good policy and better policy. No voter likes to receive constant solicitations. It is perhaps the single issue in Congress with the least interest from members, but the most bipartisan support from actual voters. And if you ask voters whether they’d rather spend taxpayers’ money on public campaign finance or whether they’d rather be constantly harassed – and, worse still, have their elected officials remain dependent on any special interest – they would choose the ancient. Citizens United may mean that private campaign money is going nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to balance the scales.

Clearly, society faces far greater problems than the unworthy and boring texts of desperate politicians. But it speaks to the underlying reasons why our government is so ineffective, so suspicious, so hated, so incapable. Banning solicitations isn’t a solution to our biggest problems, but it’s a way to start rebuilding trust in government, get more important people to run for office, and make the whole of more attractive and less demeaning application process.

In fact, just to make it a little sweeter, I’ll personally max out any candidate for secretary of state or any office that oversees local elections that supports this idea. I will even do the same for the main sponsor of the legislation prohibiting political solicitations. You won’t even have to leave me a voicemail to retrieve.

Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist and political strategist. One of his companies, Tusk Strategies, advises Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor of New York.