The Political Grift Economy

Great piece from Politico this morning about the rise of “Scam PACs”.  Scam PACs are just that, a method of using PACs to scam donors.  Externally, scam PACs look just like other PACs – they are nonprofits that raise money for political causes from donors, generally relying heavily on direct mail and email fundraising appeals.  The difference between regular PACs and scam PACs happens after the money is raised, though.  Most PACs take that money and distribute it to candidates sympathetic to whatever cause the PAC is meant to represent.   Scam PACs, on the other hand, take that money and spend it on “operating expenses” – generally justified as more fundraising – and usually through vendors/”consultants” that just so happen to be controlled by PAC’s officers.  They’re a fascinating world, but there’s one particularly interesting oddity about them: they are almost exclusively a right-wing phenomenon.

In general, bad actors treat the right-wing grassroots as a piggy bank in a way that doesn’t exist on the left.  Scam PACs are just the tip of the iceberg; there are whole businesses built around exploiting donors in order to enrich pseudo-political profiteers.  Shady survivalist businesses, gold marketing, insurance scams, multilevel marketing, etcetera.  There’s a great (if somewhat polemic) article on this from Rick Perlstein, which chronicles just how far back it goes.  Basically, the political-grift business seems to have originated with and co-evolved with the conservative movement.

As an academic question, the political parasite economy seems worth studying.  There are so many interesting questions!  Is it a specific product of campaign finance regimes?  Is it a result of the United States’ rather loosely integrated party system, which relies a lot on semi-affiliated third-party organizations?  For that matter, do things like this even exist in other countries?  I certainly have no idea.  And most interestingly, why do they only exist on the right side of the spectrum?  Perlstein’s answer is that the conservative movement encourages a certain desperation that makes people more willing to open their wallets.  Perhaps – I think it might be more related to the fact that conservative voters/donors are much older, and the elderly are the top targets for fraud.  Regardless, there’s some interesting work to be done here and the fact that America’s political financing is actually quite well-documented suggests that there might be data sufficient to address it.

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