Five years ago, Ron Paul’s popularity was still surprising. Sometime in 2007, the former physician, longtime crank in Congress, and thoroughly fringe Republican had somehow turned his shtick into success — at least monetarily. Paul raised more than $31 million in the 2008 Republican primary even though he never actually won a contest where actual delegates were at stake. For a longshot like Paul, it wasn’t the chance of his success that drove people to donate; on the contrary, all but the deluded knew he would fail.
Now, in 2012, the idea of his success among the fringe is mainstream. And Paul’s alchemy — turning derision into dollars — isn’t exclusive to his corner of the fringe. The powers that be — politics, media, Corporate America — have refused to embrace causes from Occupy Wall Street to Elizabeth Warren. And yet these underdogs still find a way to succeed because marginalization has become incredibly lucrative. How else to explain the $150 million that the DIY funding site Kickstarter is expected to help raise this year, even though many of the projects it funds will do no better than Ron Paul?
As always, credit the Internet. Since the earliest days of altnet message boards, we’ve known the Web can build just as well as it can destroy. Its vastness allows for connections both obscure and passionate, while its anonymity creates hate both entropic and cowardly. This new economy of the marginalized is the child of the first dynamic — the one that can rally thousands to a cause with the smallest of sparks.
In the past, the spark has been all that was necessary, especially in politics. Remember when Joe Wilson yelled “You Lie!” to President Obama at the State of the Union in 2009? Until then Wilson had been a meek Republican congressman best known for his determination to support Strom Thurmond and keep the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse. The media made him into a symbol of all that was wrong with Washington. Just as quickly, supporters made him — or his campaign war chest — rich. He raised $2 million in the week after the State of the Union. The Washington Post dubbed it, and every other controversial sound bite that takes on a life of its own, a moneyblurt.
But this most recent crop of marginalized parties is taking part in a more nuanced process than Wilson. These parties have used more than just controversy to raise money. They’ve used the promise of reversal.