Can small money overwhelm big money? Faced with a hostile Supreme Court and a gridlocked Congress offering little chance of passing legislation, today’s campaign-finance reformers sure hope so.

The notion is alluring. Online fundraising has made it easy to collect large sums in small increments from thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Soon, proponents hope, politicians won’t have to go to lobbyists and corporate bundlers; the Internet will simply disrupt campaign finance as it has upended so much else.

Freed from corporate money, which always wants something in return, politicians could instead rely on citizen money, which merely wants good government. And if by some happy political accident campaign-finance legislation eventually becomes possible, it need only reinforce the democratizing tendencies of the Internet, perhaps by creating a federal matching system for small donors.

So goes the theory, anyway. Add some transparency rules to identify the anonymous (and seemingly unlimited) flood of cash from independent groups facilitated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its sister rulings from lower courts, and all of a sudden you’ve got a pretty good campaign-finance system.

Begging Lawmakers

This week, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, spoke at a Yale University conference on money, power and inequality. He described the pathetic spectacle of elected representatives spending hours each day in warrens at their political party’s headquarters, acting more like telemarketers than statesmen. “If it looks bad from the outside it feels even worse from the inside,” he said.

He argued that American politics now selects people willing to devote themselves to that soul-crushing task for hours each day. “Comfortable asking total strangers for money” is not, I think, a character trait most Americans admire. Now it’s a prerequisite for running for office -- and thus it distorts who actually ends up holding office.

But Murphy was also a realist about the prospects of small donors fixing what ails the system.

“We have to admit that everybody who is giving is giving for a reason,” Murphy said. “Some of them are your friends and family and they care about you. But most of the time they care about an issue, whether they’re a corporation or an individual. We draw these arbitrary lines, but corporations want things from the government, and so do individuals.”

That’s the secret of small money. We tend to assume “small donors” hail from that mythical, much-beloved class of people known as “ordinary Americans.” They’re not. Even if tens of millions of Americans are donating, hundreds of millions of other Americans aren’t. The tiny minority that donates is different from the vast majority that doesn’t: They’re much, much more ideologically polarized.

What individual donors tend to want, Murphy said, is partisanship. “When I send out a fundraising e-mail talking about how bad Republicans are, I raise three times as much as when I send out an e-mail talking about how good I am. People are motivated to give based on their fear of the other side rather than on their belief in their side.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, the three top fundraisers in the House of Representatives in the 2012 election were Speaker John Boehner -- makes sense, the guy runs the place -- followed by former Representative Allen West and Representative Michele Bachmann.

Oy.

West was a one-term Florida congressman famous for pithy observations such as, “I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.” He raised an extraordinary $19 million. Bachmann raised $15 million. (Victors in 2012 House races raised about $1.7 million on average.) Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in case you’re wondering, came in fifth, with a bit over $7 million.

Passionate Activists

The fundraising reports tell the story. Although small-donor contributions of less than $200 accounted for just 5 percent of Cantor’s total, small donations accounted for 48 percent of West’s contributions and 64 percent of Bachmann’s.

On a gut level, I vastly prefer the passionate party activist who sends $200 to her favorite fire-breather to the lobbyist who coolly covers his bets by supplying $2,000 to both candidates in a race. One is acting as an engaged citizen. The other is a glorified bagman. But both have the potential to break our political system.

Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.

“Internet financing can be a temporary salve on the wound,” said Murphy, who raised much of his campaign contributions online. “But ultimately, it needs to be public financing of elections.”

I agree that public financing is part of the solution. But it isn’t enough. We also need to change the rules and incentives to keep polarized parties from undermining the well-being of the country. That will require disarming some of the procedural tactics that politicians have weaponized in recent years: making debt-ceiling increases automatic, for example, rather than an opportunity for hostage-taking, and ridding the Senate of the filibuster, or at least making it harder to use.

Partisanship isn’t going away, and campaign-finance reforms that don’t accommodate that fact could make problems worse. At some point, we have to adapt to the partisan landscape we have rather than imagining we can return to the ideologically mixed parties and bipartisan political system of the mid-20th century. It’s not coming back. Just ask those small donors.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ezra Klein in Washington at wonkbook@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.