Resistance Groups Rely on Crowdfunding to Fund Political Activism

Crowdfunding campaigns tied to progressive activists, despite claims of originating organically

Protesters march during the Women's March on Washington
Protesters during the Women's March on Washington / Getty
November 15, 2018

Since the 2016 presidential election, crowdfunding sites have become a top fundraising destination for progressive activists forming the so-called resistance to President Donald Trump.

Online platforms such as CrowdJustice, GoFundMe, and CrowdPAC, among others, have drawn in millions for political activism and progressive causes. Funds have been raised for purposes as varied as supporting the federal bureaucrat who lost her job for flipping off Trump's motorcade to covering the security costs for Christine Blasey Ford, and even underwriting Stormy Daniels's legal bills.

These campaigns have garnered extensive media attention, especially as progressives have been eager to portray a growing citizenry rising in opposition to the president.

Such campaigns, however, have often proven to be anything but organic. In most cases, they are either established by or linked to individuals with longstanding ties to the progressive movement.

For instance, the GoFundMe campaign that raised nearly $210,000 for Blasey Ford's security costs during the Kavanaugh confirmation battle was established by Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown Law professor and self-described "philosopher." Feldman, who "is politically active in the effort to resist Donald Trump and those who enable him," is a left-leaning academic specializing in tort and civil rights law. She is a noted speaker on the progressive lecture circuit, traveling the country discussing gun control and female enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, according to the Women's Media Center.

In 2017, Feldman launched an organization aimed at encouraging "progressive law students and young attorneys" to run for state and local office. Apart from the campaign to cover security costs, Feldman has also raised nearly $32,000 to endow a faculty position in Blasey Ford's honor to an academic institution yet to be named.

Likewise, a Crowdpac campaign started by Ady Barkan pulled in more than $40,000 for two activists who stormed an elevator to confront Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona in the lead up to the Kavanaugh hearings. The individuals in questions, two high-ranking executives from the liberal Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), were not detained or arrested for ambushing Flake, but as Barkan explained, the money raised in support of their actions would help further the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to oppose Kavanaugh.

"But these heroes need our support. We don’t have private jets or big money donors. Instead, we have a people-powered movement to save our democracy," Barkan wrote on the campaign's page. "Chip in to support our campaign that has brought hundreds of heroes to Washington D.C. to protest the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Together we can save our democracy."

Barkan, who suffers from ALS, captured widespread attention last year for placing his opposition to the GOP's tax cut package and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act within the context of his own health struggles. A former lawyer and activist with CPD, himself, Barkan was a top-dollar fundraiser and surrogate for Democratic candidates this election cycle.

Neither Barkan nor CPD responded to requests for comment on this story.

Crowdfunding sites have also been increasingly used to pressure political outcomes and elections.

Earlier this year, a GoFundMe page created by David Hogg, USA Latinx, and MadDogPAC raised nearly $10,000 in 24 hours for a mobile billboard attacking Republican senator Ted Cruz. The billboard, which highlighted a tweet Trump sent during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries attacking the senator, was meant to bolster Beto O'Rourke, Cruz's Democratic opponent.

A similar, although, potentially more serious situation developed during the battle to confirm Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In September, Mainers for Accountable Leadership (MFAL), the Maine People's Alliance—which is affiliated with CPD—and Barkan teamed up to pressure Republican senator Susan Collins to oppose Kavanaugh's nomination to the nation's highest court. Initially, the three launched a Crowdpac campaign soliciting individuals to "pledge" a contribution to Collins's 2020 Democratic opponent should the senator vote for confirmation. Once Collins asserted she would vote for the nominee, the campaign began actively taking donations.

Given that the money would be linked to an official action carried out by Collins in her role as a duly elected member of Congress, the campaign came under instant controversy over accusations it was attempting to unlawfully influence a senator's vote.

"I consider this quid pro quo fundraising to be the equivalent of an attempt to bribe me to vote against Judge Kavanaugh," Collins, at the time, told NewsMax. "If I vote against him, the money is refunded to the donors. If I vote for him, the money is given to my opponent for the 2020 race."

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a nonpartisan ethics watchdog, concurred with the senator's assessment. Shortly after the fundraising campaign was announced, FACT sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting a criminal investigation into the matter.

It is unclear if the Department of Justice will pursue the matter. To date, the campaign has raised nearly $4 million for Collins's yet-to-be-determined challenger.

Furthermore, it is uncertain how much money crowdfunding sites have collected via political causes since the 2016 election cycle.

Crowdpac would not provide exactly how many individuals were utilizing its site to fund political activism. The organization did tell the Washington Free Beacon it was operating under standard guidelines established by the Federal Elections Commission governing the remittance of campaign contributions.

GoFundMe did not respond to requests for comment.