What does Donald Trump have in common with Aung San Suu Kyi? Absolutely nothing, obviously, except maybe this: On Monday, both illustrated a broad trend about where power comes from, and it may actually be cause for optimism.
There’s reason to think that power may be democratizing. That thought is definitely heretical in the U.S., where the zeitgeist is all about power concentrating in the hands of ever fewer plutocrats. But look at what happened in Iowa, and not only with Trump. In the Democratic caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders finished dead even; Clinton’s 0.3% “win” is meaningless since it’s based only on the estimated number of state convention delegates each candidate would have. The two candidates achieved the same success, yet in campaign funding they’re almost precise opposites. Clinton raised more money last year than any other candidate in either party, about $108 million, and most of it, 59%, came from the largest contributions as categorized by the Federal Election Commission, $2,000 and more. Sanders, by contrast, raised about $74 million, of which the great majority, 85%, came from the smallest contributions, $200 and less. In addition, Sanders has so far received donations from 3.25 million donors, a new record for any candidate in any election as this point in the cycle. Fueled by radically democratized power, he did just as well as Clinton in Iowa and will likely beat her next week in New Hampshire.
The winner among Republicans, Ted Cruz, raised $46.9 million, and most of it, 60%, came from the smallest contributions. (Unlike Sanders, Cruz doesn’t disdain wealthy donors; his second-biggest source of funds, 28%, was the largest contributions.) He was up against the only billionaire in the race, Trump, who hasn’t raised or spent much money so far because his free publicity swamped everyone else’s efforts. The fact remains that he could have spent more than all the other candidates combined, and he still might. Yet the billionaire lost, beaten by a candidate who entered the race with virtually no funds of his own.
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Ben Carson further illustrates the theme. He raised more money than any other Republican last year, $53.7 million, and 75% of it came from the smallest donors. Carson faltered after the Paris terrorist attacks turned attention to foreign policy, and it turned out he barely knew the names of the players. But for much of last autumn he was Trump’s top challenger—powered by ordinary citizens, not personal wealth or celebrity or big-money donors.
As for Jeb Bush, the ultimate establishment candidate: Despite a Super PAC that raised well over $100 million and spent well over $61 million, funded in part by giant donations like $10 million from AIG chief Hank Greenberg, he finished a dismal sixth in Iowa, behind Rand Paul.
How does any of this relate to Suu Kyi? Also on Monday, on the other side of the world, she and her National League for Democracy took control of Myanmar’s parliament. The country’s military dictators, reacting to a failing economy and to pressure cultivated for decades by Suu Kyi, last year agreed to the first free elections in 25 years. Democratized power beat concentrated power—even under unfair rules that gave the military a guaranteed 25% of the parliamentary seats.
Many forces are behind this trend; information technology may be the most important. It enables all those small campaign donations in the U.S. by making them enormously easier. It brings worldwide attention to Myanmar and within the country spreads news to the remotest areas and enables people to coordinate plans and encourage one another.
Trends this large never follow a smooth trajectory. But if you’re worried about concentration of power, Monday was a good day.