Thursday, October 10, 2019

3286. Christian Parenti and Eco-Modernism

By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, October 5, 2019

As should be abundantly clear at this point, the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire has little to do with ecosocialism. It unfurled its banner in the Summer 2017 Jacobin issue that included Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s recommendation of nuclear energy as well as other ecomodernist nostrums. In the latest Catalyst, there’s an article by pro-nuclear Syracuse University professor Matt Huber that continues along those lines. All three have a special animosity toward any notion of ecological limits, with Huber being irked by André Gorz’s call: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.”

Two days ago, Christian Parenti’s “Saving the Planet Without Self-Loathing” appeared in Jacobin that, like the three authors mentioned above, took a hard line against the idea of ecological limits. He wrote:

This worldview has driven much of conservationism. It is at the heart of the concern with “overpopulation.” It lurks within the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” And it is found in the “jobs vs. environment” debate.

To start with, there are two ways of understanding overpopulation. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, wrote “The Population Bomb”, a book that by the authors’ own admission was an attempt to apply Malthus’s ideas to the contemporary world. On the other hand, the combination of an expanding population expecting to enjoy the life-style of the average citizen in a G8 country will be impossible to realize. The world’s population today is 7.6 billion and is expected to be around 11 billion by the end of the century. If a car, air-conditioning, and meat 3 or 4 times a week are considered non-negotiable, then we are in trouble.

Last August, Leigh Phillips wrote an article for Jacobin titled “In Defense of Air-Conditioning” that had this subtitle “Opposition to air-conditioning is just another form of austerity politics. Nothing’s too good for the working class — especially not freedom from the heat.” He assures us that there would be no downside to making air-conditioning a universal right since Canadians enjoy electricity without environmental consequences: “While it may seem fantastical in much of the US, north of the border, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.” Leaving aside the obvious risks associated with nuclear power, one has to wonder if Phillips has any idea of the damage hydroelectric dams have done to indigenous people in Canada as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article 5 years ago. Perhaps Phillips agrees with Huber that such “marginal” populations do not offer sufficient social weight for an effective “strategy”. Perhaps? No, probably definitely.

Parenti alludes to the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” It sounds to me as if he is trying to pick a fight with “degrowth” advocates like Jason Hickel but is not quite up to the task. It should be mentioned that Parenti believes that there are technical solutions to climate change that might be capable of allowing everybody to keep their air-conditioners running 24/7. As pointed out by Ian Angus, Parenti wrote an article for Dissent that backed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a “fairly simple” way of solving the climate change crisis. Angus debunked this claim:

There is only one commercial plant in the entire world that captures CO2 directly from the air. According to the journal Science, it takes in just 900 tons of CO2 a year, roughly the amount produced by 200 cars. The company that built it says that capturing just one percent of global CO2 emissions would require 250,000 similar plants. “Fairly simple” just doesn’t apply.

Parenti’s main goal in this article is to debunk the notion that “Western environmentalism has long suffered from”, namely an implicit Malthusianism that sees humanity as intruders upon a harmonious and static thing called “nature.” It might have been helpful if Parenti had named some names but it is likely that he is referring to Deep Ecology, a movement with some misanthropic tendencies that are associated with David Foreman, who was a co-founder of Earth First! Foreman left the Sierra Club after it rejected his anti-immigration proposals. Nowadays, Foreman is involved with the Rewilding Institute, a project that might lead to a ban on cattle ranching in most of the West and repopulating it with native grasses and bison. In my view, something like this will be necessary for the survival of humanity whether or not Parenti gets it.

Parenti addresses the Jacobin readers as if they were in junior high school:

The truth is, we are not intruders. In reality, humans have always been an environment-making species. In fact, every species is.
What we call “nature” or “the environment” is ultimately just the sum total of layer upon layer of organism-environment interactions. Thus it is dynamic, not static. Every organism interacts with, and impacts, its environment. At the same time, every organism is always also part of the external environment of all other organisms.
Environment making is what life forms do. Bees need flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen; in the process of their foraging, bees pollinate flowering plants, helping them reproduce and spread. Thus, bees are central to producing a habitat that produces bees.

To survive, beavers need beaver ponds. But they do not find their niche habitat — they make it by compulsive dam building. When beavers build, they also destroy. In areas they flood, previously established plant communities drown — including, on occasion, bee habitat.

This is followed by a little lecture on Engels’s “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” that from Parenti’s presentation sounds to my ears like early ecomodernism:

Just as our ancient ancestors “learned to consume everything edible” thanks to the technology of fire management, Engels noted that fire allowed humans “to live in any climate” and thus “spread over the whole of the habitable world.”… The further afield early humans moved, the more technology they created and used, the more environments they helped shape.

How odd that Parenti would not refer to the section in Engels’s article that most ecosocialists know almost by heart:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Like a physician reassuring a 75-year old person with some deadly illness that they can live to 78 at least, Parenti tells us: “In other words, human labor can have life-encouraging effects, or it can do the exact opposite, depending on how labor and production are organized.” So, everybody knows what this means. Capitalism is life-discouraging and socialism is life-encouraging.

Except that the examples supplied by Parenti of “life-encouraging” human labor don’t have very much to do with socialism. He hails a fish farm in Spain and Chinese rice-growing. While there’s no point in denigrating such efforts, you don’t get the sense of the apocalyptic future that faces us at the end of the 21st century. Like everybody else on the Sunkara Express, Parenti believes in the Green New Deal. While the Jacobin/DSA sees this as tantamount to overthrowing capitalism, those with cooler heads see it as something likely not to come into existence under capitalism.

In a 2015 article written before the GND had become for the Jacobin/DSA what Trotsky’s Transitional Program was for me in my impetuous youth, Parenti wrote an article titled “Shadow Socialism in the Age of Environmental Crisis” that will give you a clear idea on where he stands on the most urgent issue of our day, namely how to get rid of the capitalist system that Malcolm X called “vulturistic”.

Shadow socialism is nothing more than government ownership of, for example, canals and railroads in the 19th century and the New Deal in the 20th:

Then comes the New Deal in which America’s Shadow Socialism becomes explicit. The effort to get out of the crisis of the Great Depression relied on the state to jump-start capitalism, to redistribute wealth downward to common people, to create markets by giving poor people jobs and income so they could buy the products of industry and keep the economy turning over. And the state itself purchased (and still purchases) large amounts of technology, invested heavily, and consumed a vast amount of output.

In the conclusion of his article, Parenti sheepishly apologizes to wild-eyed young radicals who probably made the mistake of reading Howard Zinn rather than Michael Harrington:

Let me end with that and an apology or explanation. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary or radical, but what I’m trying to do is to be very, very realistic. Because I don’t think it is sufficient to be outraged about this and invoke the righteousness of our cause. We have to come up with credible solutions and stories that will really work and strategies that will work at different time frames. So, okay, what I’ve suggested here is not the solution to all problems associated with capitalism. It’s not even the solution to the environmental crisis. It’s just a realistic approach to dealing with climate change so as to buy time, so as to pull back from the brink, so that we can continue struggling. If we don’t take things that seriously and get comfortable with the contradictions implied in that, I think we will not be able to address the climate crisis. But we do have the means to do it economically and technologically, and so it is just a matter of politics.

Is this the end result of Parenti making a career as a professional intellectual rather than as a professional revolutionary as I tried back in 1967? He worked for George Soros’s Open Society for many years and is now ensconced in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in NY. It is becoming clear to me that it exactly such people who are providing the brain-power, such as it is, for Sunkara’s publishing empire. But don’t fret. This kind of pablum leaves a vacuum that will be filled by genuine sans culottes, not the pretend kind that write for Jacobin.

Friday, September 20, 2019

3283. Birds Are Vanishing From North America

By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times, September 19, 2019

Three billion birds

A survey of 529 bird species in the United States and Canada found that bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970, a loss of nearly three billion birds.

Bird population change since 1970 by breeding habitat
Boreal forests
Western forests
Forest generalist
Eastern forests
Arid lands
Boreal forests
200 million
400 million
Note: Wetland and
coastal habitats
are not shown.
Habitat boundaries
are approximate.
Net loss of
600 million birds

By The New York Times | Source: Science

The skies are emptying out.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations.

In a statement on Thursday, David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, called the findings “a full-blown crisis.”

Experts have long known that some bird species have become vulnerable to extinction. But the new study, based on a broad survey of more than 500 species, reveals steep losses even among such traditionally abundant birds as robins and sparrows.

There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides. “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds:

“On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.”

Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, said that new findings signal something larger at work: “This is the loss of nature.”

For decades, professional ornithologists have been assisted by an army of devoted amateur bird-watchers who submit their observations to databases and help carry out surveys of bird populations each year.

In the new study, the researchers turned to those surveys to estimate the populations of 529 species between 2006 and 2015.

Those estimates include 76 percent of all bird species in the United States and Canada, but represent almost the entire population of birds. (The species for which there weren’t enough data to make firm estimates occur only in small numbers.)

The researchers then used bird-watching records to estimate the population of each species since 1970, the earliest year for which there is solid data.

“This approach of combining population abundance estimates across all species and looking for an overall trend is really unprecedented,” said Scott Loss, a conservation biologist at Oklahoma State University who was part of the new study.

While some species grew, the researchers found, the majority declined — often by huge numbers.

“We were stunned by the result — it’s just staggering,” said Kenneth V. Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy, and the lead author of the new study.

“It’s not just these highly threatened birds that we’re afraid are going to go on the endangered species list,” he said. “It’s across the board.”

Weather radar offered another way to track bird populations. Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues counted birds recorded on radar at 143 stations across the United States from 2007 to 2018. They focused on springtime scans, when birds were migrating in great numbers.

The team measured a 14 percent decline during that period, consistent with the drop recorded in the bird-watching records.

“If we have two data sets showing the same thing, it’s a home run,” said Nicole Michel, a senior quantitative ecologist at the Audubon Society who was not involved in the study.

Among the worst-hit groups were warblers, with a population that dropped by 617 million. There are 440 million fewer blackbirds than there once were.

Three Billion Birds
A survey of 529 bird species in the United States and Canada found that bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970, a loss of nearly three billion birds.

Dr. Rosenberg said he was surprised by how widespread the population drop was. Even starlings — a species that became a fast-breeding pest after its introduction to the United States in 1890 — have dwindled by 83 million birds, a 49 percent decline.

Europe is experiencing a similar loss of birds, also among common species, said Dr. Gaston, of the University of Exeter. “The numbers are broadly comparable,” he said.

The new study was not designed to determine why birds are disappearing, but the results — as well as earlier research — point to some likely culprits, Dr. Rosenberg said.

Grassland species have suffered the biggest declines by far, having lost 717 million birds. These birds have probably been decimated by modern agriculture and development.
“Every field that’s plowed under, and every wetland area that’s drained, you lose the birds in that area,” Dr. Rosenberg said.

In addition to habitat loss, pesticides may have taken a toll. A study published last week, for example, found that pesticides called neonicotinoids make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

The researchers found some positive signs. Bald eagles are thriving, for example, and falcon populations have grown by 33 percent. Waterfowl are on the upswing.

For the most part, there’s little mystery about how these happy exceptions came to be. Many recovering bird species were nearly wiped out in the last century by pesticides, hunting and other pressures. Conservation measures allowed them to bounce back.

“In those cases, we knew what the causes were and we acted on that,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “They’re models of success.”

But some thriving populations are harder to explain.

Tiny warbler-like birds called vireos are booming, with 89 million more birds than in 1970 — a jump of 53 percent. Yet warblers, which share the same habitats as vireos, have suffered a 37 percent decline.

“I have no idea why vireos are doing well,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “I’d love to do a study of vireos and discover what their secret is.”

The sheer scale of the bird decline meant that stopping it would require immense effort, said Dr. Young, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Habitats must be defended, chemicals restricted, buildings redesigned. “We’re overusing the world, so it’s affecting everything,” she said.

udubon Society is calling for protection of bird-rich habitats, such as the Great Lakes and the Colorado River Basin, as well as for upholding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which the Trump Administration is trying to roll back.

The society and other bird advocacy groups also suggest things that individuals can do. They urge keeping cats inside, so they don’t kill smaller birds. Vast numbers of birds die each year after flying into windows; there are ways to make the glass more visible to them.

To some birders, the study’s findings confirmed a dreaded hunch.

Beverly Gyllenhaal, 62, a retired cookbook author, and her husband, Anders, have spotted 256 species in parks in the eastern United States. But when she visited her mother in North Carolina in recent years, it seemed there weren’t as many birds as she recalled from her childhood there.

And when she talks to people around the United States on her birding travels, many say the same thing. “Oftentimes people will tell you, ‘It’s nothing like it used to be,’” she said.

The estimated losses have left her appalled. “If the cardinals and the blue jays and the sparrows aren’t doing well,” she said, “that’s really scary.”

Thursday, September 19, 2019

3282. American Electoral Politics: The Changing Shape of the Parties Is Changing Where They Get Their Money

By Thomas B. Edsall, The New York Times, September 18, 2019

Money is the mother’s milk of politics, as the old saying goes, and the slow-motion realignment of our two major political parties has changed who raises more money from the rich and who raises more from small donors.

A pair of major developments give us a hint about how future trends will develop on the partisan battleground.

First: Heading into the 2020 election, President Trump is on track to far surpass President Barack Obama’s record in collecting small-donor contributions — those under $200 — lending weight to his claim of populist legitimacy.

Second: Democratic candidates and their party committees are making inroads in gathering contributions from the wealthiest of the wealthy, the Forbes 400, a once-solid Republican constituency. Democrats are also pulling ahead in contributions from highly educated professionals — doctors, lawyers, tech executives, software engineers, architects, scientists, teachers and so on.

These knowledge class donors, deeply hostile to Trump, propelled the fund-raising success of Democratic House candidates in 2018 — $1 billion to the Republicans’ $661 million.
While there are advantages for Democrats in gaining support from previously Republican-leaning donors, this success carries costs. In winning over the high-tech industry, the party has acquired a constituency at odds with competing Democratic interest groups, especially organized labor and consumer protection proponents. Picking up rich backers also reinforces the image of a party dominated by elites.

In their paper, “Increasing Inequality in Wealth and the Political Expenditures of Billionaires,” Adam Bonica and Howard Rosenthal, political scientists at Stanford and N.Y.U., track the partisan contribution patterns of the Forbes 400 from the 1981-82 election cycle through the 2011-12 cycle.

For that three-decade period, the level of giving to Republicans and Republican Party committees by members of the Forbes 400 followed a steady downward trajectory, falling from 68 percent to 59 percent.

This downward trajectory coincided with the steady transformation of the sources of wealth for those on the Forbes list. In 1982, when the list was first published, solidly Republican manufacturers and energy producers dominated — 89 of the 400 richest Americans having made their fortunes in oil.

By 2018, 59 of the Forbes 400 had made their fortunes in technology, including six of the top ten: Jeff Bezos, No. 1; Bill Gates No. 2; Mark Zuckerberg, No. 4; Larry Ellison, No. 5; Larry Page, number 6; and Sergey Brin number 9. Eighty-eight more made their money in the financial sector. In contrast to the 1982 Forbes list, only 14 on the 2018 list made their money in manufacturing and 24 in energy.

“The 400 have trended steadily to the left,” conclude Bonica and Rosenthal.

The two authors write that from 1989 to 2017, members of the Forbes 400 have fared much better under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents: The 400 “did very well under the two Democrats, Clinton and Obama. They did not do well under either Bush.”

Bonica and Rosenthal’s analysis may prove troubling for those seeking to slow or reverse increasing wealth and income inequality. As the Forbes 400 moves toward the Democratic Party, they write, “Inequality in campaign contributions in the American plutocracy has grown hand in hand with the growth in economic inequality.”
They go on to raise another basic question: Does increased support for Democrats among the affluent and the rich undermine efforts to stem the growth of inequality?

The historic rise in inequality in recent decades has not ushered in an era of Republican fund-raising dominance. On the contrary, Democrats have made substantial gains against Republicans in recent decades while inequality was on the rise.

In a separate essay, published on the Scholars’ Strategy Network, which discusses the implications of their work, Bonica and Rosenthal wrote:

The superrich control resources that parties and politicians require and, as a result, are courted. Politicians have incentives to pay attention to the policy concerns that animate wealthy donors on left and right alike — and this dynamic influences public discussion and policymaking.

The continued concentration of money at the top, they write, translates into more political power:

"The ideas, values, and preferences of wealthy donors distort the focus of U.S. democracy more than individuals’ desires to grow their already vast fortunes. Rather than worry about individual corruption, citizens and leaders should worry about the many ways money in politics can amplify the voices of the privileged few over those of the majority. As wealth concentration grows, so will uneven political influence."

Bonica has turned tracking campaign contributions by wealth and occupation into a specialty.

He provided The Times with data extending from 1980 to 2016 covering the contribution patterns of donors who gave the largest amount of money in each election cycle. (Roughly a quarter of Bonica’s list overlaps with the Forbes 400 list.)

In the 1979-80 presidential election cycle, 71 percent of the top 400 donors gave to Republicans and to right-of-center political action committees, while 29 percent gave to Democrats and left-of-center PACS, a 42-point difference. In the 2015-16 presidential cycle, 54 percent gave to Republicans and right-leaning PACs, and 46 percent gave to Democrats, an 8-point difference.

In the case of contribution patterns of those in different occupations, Bonica emailed in response to my inquiry:

"The medical profession has perhaps experienced the largest generational realignment. Physicians who graduated medical school before the 1990s tend to favor Republicans, but younger cohorts have trended sharply to the left.
Bonica’s data shows that doctors who graduated in the 30 years from 1960 to 1990 consistently gave more to Republicans than to Democrats, generally in the 54-55 percent range."

Starting with those graduating in 1990, however, the share of contributions going to Republicans began to decline, dropping below 50 percent for those graduating in 1996 and falling to the low 30s for the youngest cohort.

As further evidence of this trend, Bonica cited a 2017 survey of 1,660 medical students published in the journal Academic Medicine. The survey reported that 89.1 percent said they supported Obamacare. In the survey, 77.7 identified themselves as liberal, 12.2 percent moderate and 7.2 percent conservative.

Bonica’s study of lawyers, conducted with Maya Sen, a political scientist at Harvard, also demonstrates a strong pro-Democratic trend in campaign contributions, although attorneys have leaned Democratic for decades.

On an ideological scale — with plus numbers indicating right-of-center and minus numbers indicating left-of-center — Bonica found that lawyers who graduated from nonelite schools shifted from roughly evenly split between left and right in the 1950s to minus .6, or liberal, by 2012. Lawyers from elite schools (Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc.) were liberal-leaning in the 1950s (minus .25) and became rock-solid liberals by the current decade (minus .9).

Three different scholars — David E. Broockman and Neil Malhotra, professors at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and Gregory Ferenstein, an independent journalist who writes about Silicon Valley — have a different take. Their paper, “Predispositions and the Political Behavior of American Economic Elites: Evidence from Technology Entrepreneurs,” explores some of the political consequences of the ascendance of high-tech.

Technology entrepreneurs, despite their Democratic leanings, are ambivalent on key elements of the Democratic agenda, according to Broockman and his co-authors. They are reliably orthodox liberals on some issues, not so reliable on others.

On matters of globalization, trade, and immigration, this Silicon Valley constituency is firmly pro-globalization. Eighty-seven percent support free trade agreements and 56 percent are “in favor of increasing levels of immigration,” which is “15 points higher than Democratic” rank and file, the paper says.

On social issues, the authors found that “technology entrepreneurs are again very liberal,” including near-universal (96 percent) support of same-sex marriage, 82 percent support of gun control and 67 percent opposition to the death penalty.

Perhaps most significant and most surprising, surveys of high tech executives conducted by Broockman and colleagues show that tech entrepreneurs “strongly support redistribution and taxation.” For example, Broockman et al. continue, “nearly all technology entrepreneurs support increasing taxes on those making over $250,000 or $1,000,000 per year (with 76 and 83 percent expressing some support for each, respectively).” Seventy-five percent support programs specifically targeted toward the poor, including 59 percent in support of increased spending for the poor. Some 82 percent indicated “support for universal health care even if it means raising taxes.”

While high tech executives share the views of liberal elites generally on the issues described above, there are significant areas of conflict.

“Technology entrepreneurs do not share conventional Democratic views on the regulation of product and labor markets,” the authors write. “Technology entrepreneurs are indeed more conservative even than Republican citizens and most similar to Republican donors.”

On specific issues, almost all (82 percent) tech executives believe that it is too difficult to fire workers and that the government should make it easier to do so. However, majorities of Democratic donors and citizens believe the government should make it harder to fire workers (a 50 percentage point difference from technology entrepreneurs).

In the case of organized labor, three quarters (74 percent) of tech executives “say they would like to see labor unions’ influence decrease, versus only 18 percent of Democratic donors and 33 percent of Democratic citizens.”

In their conclusion, the three authors address how the growing influence of the tech industry in Democratic politics will affect the party’s approach to social spending and the reduction of inequality.

On one hand, they write, “technology entrepreneurs seem poised to support Democratic candidates — and therefore redistributive policies that should reduce inequality — financially.”

On the other, they point out that these entrepreneurs generally stand opposed to many government interventions in markets — such as government support for labor unions, worker protections, and consumer protections — that have long been central to the Democratic Party’s ideological answer to inequality and supported by traditional Democratic constituencies.

The result, they suggest, is that as Democratic elected officials receive increasing financial support from technology entrepreneurs and attempt to court further support from them” intraparty conflicts over “regulating product and labor markets may take center stage.

Altogether, the developments at the high-end of campaign finance are a mixed bag for the Democratic Party, expanding the sources of political money while simultaneously risking internal divisions.

More worrisome for the Democratic Party and its candidates is Donald Trump’s exceptional success in raising campaign money in small dollar amounts, which suggests that his racial and anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to motivate supporters.

Federal Election Commission data on Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid, along with an analysis of Trump’s fund-raising in the 2020 campaign by the Center for Responsive Politics, shows the following.

By the end of his re-election campaign, Obama raised a total of $549.4 million, of which $234.4 million, or 42.7 percent, came in contributions of less than $200.

By the end of her 2016 campaign, Clinton raised a total of $405.7 million, of which $105.6 million, or 26.0 percent, came in low dollar amount,

By the end of June 2019, at a much earlier stage in his campaign, Trump had raised a total of $124.8 million, of which $87.3 million, or 70.0 percent, is made up of donations under $200.

Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, wrote in an email that “Trump’s appeal is more to ideologues and emotional Republican contributors rather than to strategic and traditional Republican large-dollar donors.”

He argues that the fact that Trump raises such a large share from small-dollar donors is due less to Trump’s improvement among small donors than it is to the difficulty he has raising money from large donors. This is really a story about how the traditional large donors in the Republican Party didn’t want to give to Trump in 2016 and even so far in 2020 they continue to be reluctant to contribute to him.

Raymond J. La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, also emailed me:

"It is not too surprising that Trump has outpaced others, even Obama, in raising money from small donors." 

Individual donors — big and small — tend to be much more polarized compared to the rest of the electorate. They give because of strong ideological preferences and passions. People like Trump ignite those passions.

Bonica notes that “there is a strong association between ideological extremity and total funds raised from small donors at the presidential level.” Bonica’s calculations of the ideological positioning of the candidates shows that Trump is “the most extreme conservative,” while Bernie Sanders, who “raised 58 percent of his campaign dollars from small donors” in 2016, stands out as the most liberal candidate, “which might mirror what we see in Trump from the left.”

Trump’s success in raising small-dollar contributions is not necessarily a harbinger of his prospects in November 2020. It does, however, raise a question about the contemporary role of the two major political parties.

Traditionally, one of the core strengths of the Democratic Party has been that voters trust it more than the Republican Party to protect and advance the interests of the middle class. In recent years, however, that advantage has been eroding.

The NBC/WSJ poll has repeatedly asked voters “which party do you think would do a better job looking out for the middle class?”

In the 1990s, an average of eight polls showed the Democrats with a 22.25 point advantage, 43.0 to 21.75. The question was dropped only to be resumed in December 2011. From 2011 to September 2014, the Democratic advantage fell to 19.5 points, 44.0 to 24.5.

Since then, in six surveys conducted from June 2015 to October 2018 — the Trump era — the Democratic advantage continued to erode to 13.1 points, 41.3 to 28.2. In the two most recent surveys, the Democratic advantage fell to 10 points, 41 to 31, less than half of what it was in the 1990s.

The Democrats may or may not regain the presidency in 2020, but they could well lose their invaluable credential as the party of the middle class.