Funding Political Opponents Is Effective

A common reaction to ChangeRoots is: “Why am I giving money to someone’s electoral opponent? I don’t want to give some politician money just because their opponent did something I dislike, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Learn more about why I created ChangeRoots and what it is.

That is a rational reaction. I’d like to explain why we very intentionally designed hitting “do better” to send money to a politician’s opponent. The short answer is that it is an effective negative reinforcement. Lobbyists, billionaires and advocacy groups have used this method for decades.

The point of ChangeRoots is to give people a tool to effectively deliver both positive and negative reinforcement to politicians for their actions. In an earlier post I lay out how reinforcement is most effective if it is immediate, specific and impactful. Building upon that premise, in order to devise an impactful negative reinforcement for a politician, it must be something that has a meaningful negative consequence for them. When you decide to give their opponent money, you make it more likely that politician loses their next election. If you believe politicians are primarily motivated by getting re-elected, something we believe, then by giving to their opponent you have now delivered an impactful consequence.

Parenting & Political Giving

To illustrate the point let’s take a parenting scenario. You have twin 13-year old girls, Jane and Annie, who both love to sit in the front seat on the way to school. Normally, you alternate which girl gets to sit in the front. However, this morning Jane is disrespectful to you. Since it was her turn to sit in the front, you make Jane sit in the back while Annie sits in the front. You have delivered an immediate, specific and impactful negative reinforcement to Jane for being disrespectful by depriving her of something she cares about. At the same time Annie got a “reward” by getting to sit in the front seat. She was rewarded not because of her actions, but simply because it made her sister’s negative reinforcement more effective.

As citizens we have very limited ways to deliver effective positive or negative reinforcement. Voting is the most powerful, but you can only vote once an election and holding your vote hostage to all actions your politician takes is unrealistic and ineffective. On the other hand, campaign contributions represent one of the most effective forms of reinforcement, something elites and corporations realized long ago. We as a nation have a long history of funding the electoral opponent of a politician as punishment for policy betrayal.

This tool has been primarily used by those with resources to push their own agenda for the country. But I believe people know what is best for themselves and for the country, not elites. That’s why at ChangeRoots we’ve made it simple for regular people effectively punish politicians. It’s time you get to use this powerful tool. Funding an opponent works, I can’t wait to see what happens.

A great 8min speech on post partisanship


Sup fam. We’re not only going to start highlighting politicians who call for a more respectful and reasonable way to treat those they disagree with, but we are going to start incentivizing our Troublemakers to donate to politicians on both sides who call for adventurous civility. 

We expect people to hate on us. We expect people to point out all the hypocritical things those same politicians who are calling for civility have done to increase toxic partisanship. Respect on that. However…all the research proves that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative. So if we reward the good behavior, it will happen more. Sounds good to us.


Chris Cillizza wrote for The Washington Post:

“Rubio’s speech was a plea for civility in the Senate, a warning that if civilized debate dies in the Senate, it will die in the broader society too. It’s an important address — and one well worth spending eight minutes of your life listening to.

A few lines that really stood out to me:

* “I don’t know of a civilization in the history of the world that’s been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of the people in that country.”

* “We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore.”

* “We are reaching a point in this republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.”

* “What’s at stake here tonight … is not simply some rule but the ability of the most important nation on earth to debate in a productive and respectful way the pressing issues before it.”

Systematic thinkers are the partisan sheep

We often think we choose our political team based on our policy preferences. However, research has found we often choose our political team primarily for social and emotional reasons. This is because the people we love are on a certain team, the team gives us a sense of belonging and our self esteem is tied to our social standing within that team.

When this happens, we value being part of that particular team more than the results of policy. In order to signal to others around us that we are part of the ‘team’, we support what the team supports.

Team over policy

Research has found Democrats will actually support Republican policies when they believe those policies are supported by Democratic leadership. They found Republicans will do the same when roles are reversed.

The more you think, the more you follow

Researchers measured the tendency to value team over policy in two groups of people. First they used a series of tests to determine how much people cared about their identity with their political team. Then they took all the people who cared a lot and sorted those people into two groups. They separated people who think a lot to make decisions (“systematic thinkers”) from people who rely more on their intuition to make decisions (“gut people”).

They expected gut people would be the most likely to follow the party line regardless of the underlying policies. Instead they found the opposite. Systematic thinkers more often supported whatever policies they were told their party favored.

The reason systematic thinkers more often follow the party line is because of their ability to comprehend and create complex stories. They create a complex rationalization about why they favor whatever policy their party supports. Because they go through the additional cognitive process to develop that story, they believe more deeply in that story. In contrast, a gut person who didn’t go through all that effort is less attached to their position.

What does this all mean?

We tend to assume political elites, party leaders and partisan intellectuals are more rational actors than the rest of us. However, this research suggests identity, social standing and emotional attachment are much larger parts of their partisan identity than we think.

Knowing more precisely why political elites are amongst the most emotional and tribal of us all gives us better information to develop more targeted solutions in our fight against toxic partisanship.

Political Feedback 101

The key ingredients to effective feedback are: specificity, immediacy and impact

The history of behavioral science has taught us that a positive or negative reinforcement is most effective if the consequence is (1) specifically tied to the triggering action, (2) is delivered immediately following the triggering action and (3) has a meaningful impact upon the subject.

Sneaking Out Meets Behavioral Science

To illustrate this point let’s examine three scenarios where you’re a parent who catches your 16-year old son sneaking out to drive to a party.

  • Scenario A: you catch them sneaking out, scold them for breaking the rules, and take away car privileges for two weeks.
  • Scenario B: you do not immediately punish them, but a week later, without explanation, you randomly take away their car privileges for two weeks.
  • Scenario C: you immediately scold them, but do nothing else.

In Scenario B, while you randomly take away the car, it is unlikely to be effective because while you did deliver an impactful consequence, you did not do it immediately nor tie it to the specific behavior that you wanted to change. Scenario C, only scolding, is unlikely to be effective because while you delivered an immediate and specific consequence, being scolded is not impactful enough to change the behavior of sneaking out. Scenario A, immediately taking away the car, will be most effective because you delivered an immediate, specific and impactful consequence.

By creating ChangeRoots, we empower people to deliver specific, immediate and impactful reinforcement to politicians. It is a newsfeed of political activity where a “like” sends a quarter to that politician and a “dislike” sends one to their opponent.


Politicians primarily care about getting reelected. The data shows the more money politicians outspend their opponents, the more they win by. Therefore giving money to a politician is an impactful positive reinforcement and giving money to their opponent is an impactful negative reinforcement.


Giving money to them or their opponent for a specific action (e.g. their stance on an issue articulated in a tweet) adds specificity to the reinforcement. The politician knows exactly what you are reinforcing.


Giving money to them or their opponent for a specific action within hours or days of a specific action adds immediacy to the equation.

For too long people have lacked a way to provide effective feedback to politicians. We transform the unfortunate reality of “when money talks, politicians listen” into a tool for people to get their politicians to do better.

How To Attract Accountable Politicians

Let’s take the example of two businesses. Business A has a culture of carefully hiring employees, monthly performance evaluations and a policy to only fire any employee who rates ‘low performing’ for two consecutive months. Business B has culture of evaluating performance once a year, no clear definition of ‘low performing’ and does not fire employees in a consistent manner.

Clear expectations are set up front for new hires at Company A. If they are rated ‘low performing’ they understand they need to improve immediately or be fired. This culture attracts the type of person who appreciates accountability while simultaneously weeds out low performers.

New hires at Company B quickly learn the system can be easily gamed. They realize that internal politics is rewarded more than high performance. This culture attracts the type of person who plays politics while simultaneously repels those who value high performance.

“Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… do not complain about illogical behavior… “ — Eli Goldratt

We currently have a political system that functions much like Company B. We have a culture of evaluating performance only at election time, no clear definition of ‘low performing’ and do not fire politicians in a consistent manner.

We designed ChangeRoots to empower people to ‘rate’ the performance of politicians on a weekly basis. These ‘ratings’ impact their ability to keep their job or get fired. The more ‘keep it ups’ a politician earns the more campaign contributions they accumulate which makes it easier to get re-elected. The more ‘do betters’ a politician earns the more contributions their opponent accumulates which makes it more likely they lose their election a.k.a get fired.

Over time it will become clear what the ChangeRoots community expects from politicians. Those who do not meet those expectations will learn they need improve immediately or risk getting fired. This culture will attract the type of politician that appreciates accountability while simultaneously weeding out low performers.

The challenge we take upon ourselves is to ensure the expectations that emerge from our community are values that are good for the country. My vision is to cultivate an ethos of post-partisanship within the ChangeRoots community: a world beyond political parties that has a bias for integrity, listens to all sides and — above all else — values win-win solutions.

How we cultivate post-partisanship defines everything we do at ChangeRoots. We look at each part of our design, team, values, communications, process, product and style through the lens of post-partisanship. As our understanding of post-partisanship evolves so will ChangeRoots. I’ll let you in on a secret; the majority of people want post-partisanship. They are exhausted from this bullshit political tribalism and grandstanding. I simply hope we’re the spark for something much bigger.

Solve for Integrity First

We all want a better world, but what does that look like? How can we achieve it? What are the right steps? The first ones?

A better world is best accomplished when those in power first and foremost have integrity. Integrity is being honest and honoring your word.

A democracy full of politicians with integrity provides a baseline to compare leaders to each other. If I know a politician will deliver on their promises I can realistically compare them to their opponent’s promises. My choice becomes a comparison based on complete information. Today it is a comparison based on guesswork. I have to guess what a politician will actually do versus what they are telling me. I have to evaluate how well they kept their word in the past, guess at their dealmaking and policy skills and guess how self-interested they are. This is hard, exhausting and frustrating.

When I trust a politician will do what they say or at least try their hardest, the comparison becomes easier. I evaluate the reasonableness of their promises and their skill at accomplishing them.

Can we ever get to a place where politicians act with integrity? I think so. We simply need to make it very hard to win an election if you break your word. Regardless of party, policy stance or personal charm, if you don’t do what you promise then you’re fired.

Campaign Finance as a Force for Good

Outside of voting, campaign donations are the biggest factor in determining who wins and who loses elections. I propose to turn the very thing that has corrupted our democracy, campaign finance, into the antidote to dishonesty. When a politician acts with integrity, fund their campaign. When they act without it, fund their opponent. It’s that simple.

You may ask, “Well, what if their opponent also acts without integrity?” Great question. Fund the politician who has more integrity. Then immediately after they are elected fund whoever will challenge that politician next election. This holds politicians accountable for their lack of integrity. Once politicians know acting without integrity has consequences, they will start keeping their word. If they don’t, eventually a challenger will come along who does. Then we fire the dishonest politician and elect the one with integrity.

Our whole political system is suffering from a breakdown in integrity. If we step outside of our partisan blinders and choose to solve for integrity first it will lay the foundation to solve so many other problems.

Character Over Party

I have a new mantra.

I don’t care what party you identify with.

I care that you have integrity.

Are eager to work across the aisle.

And have the courage to accept short-term pain for long-term gain.

Take a moment and step outside your political ideology. Consider the qualities you want in someone you choose to follow. Remove the loving eyes you have for your own tribe. Imagine how a politician, progressive or conservative, with integrity who worked across the aisle on long term solutions would act each day. Now imagine each congressperson and senator possesses those qualities.

What do you see? What does our democracy look like?

Once you start valuing character, results improve. This is true in business, in friendship and in politics. Compromising on character for the sake of ideological alignment is short-sighted and damaging.As citizens we focus too much on narrow policy disagreements rather than fundamental character traits. Leaders that possess good character and are professionals in the art of governing will find good solutions for all. It is our job to hire the best person for the job. The best person for the job is a post-partisan that acts with integrity.

Encourage Competition with Campaign Finance

Sitting politicians fundraise throughout the year from lobbyists, interest groups and supporters vying for influence. They develop the networks and infrastructure to capitalize on their position of power. And they accumulate large amounts of money ready to deploy against competitive threats. In this way sitting politicians are like big corporations. In contrast, most potential congressional challengers start their campaign without any funding. The initial disparity in campaign funding creates a huge disincentive for challengers to run against incumbents. Challengers face a steep uphill battle regardless of how much better they are for the people, how much more integrity they have or how much better at policy writing they are.

If we could level the fundraising playing field between challengers and incumbents then we would get better challengers. Talented people would run more often if they had the initial capital to build a team and get their message out. Think of it as start-up capital. Without the initial capital to hire a small team and build a prototype, the best ideas and best political challengers, cannot survive.

Political Startups

We can level the playing field by investing ‘startup capital’ in congressional races ahead of selecting a challenger. The public can donate money to a fund throughout the year that automatically goes to whoever wins the primary election of a specific congressional seat. More challengers, who otherwise wouldn’t risk their time and money, would be incentivized to run in the primaries, knowing that if they win they have the initial capital to wage a legitimate challenge against a sitting politician. So-called ‘safe seats’ become competitive ensuring the public gets to choose the best leader each election.

Competition breeds talent and talent gets results. These are good things for our democracy.

A Political Performance Review

The science of performance reviews has dramatically improved in the last few years. The best companies have moved from ineffective annual reviews to frequent check-ins where employees receive direct feedback against specific goals and company values. In the new model, employees knows when they’re succeeding or failing. Good performers get promoted early and often, poor performers get terminated quickly. Companies that have adopted the new model outperform their outdated peers.

Voting is the equivalent of ineffective annual reviews. We hire politicians without specific goals, rarely check-in to how they’re doing and then two years later spend 20 minutes on our way to the polls deciding whether to fire or re-hire them. That’s assuming we even vote.

Best Practices for Politics

Let’s embrace the idea we should manage politicians like an executive manages their direct reports. Let’s acknowledge we have not only the power but the responsibility to give feedback, hire the best leaders and fire poor performers. Once we accept that, we can learn from business best practices and adopt them to politics. Best practices call for choosing goals and values to measure politicians against and a way to frequently check-in to provide feedback. A tool like this can be created through a combination of social media platforms, political donations and open government data. Let’s get to it.

Conservatives’ Yin to Liberals’ Yang

Moral Psychology’s Argument for Appreciating The Other Side

Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite thinkers on moral and political psychology. I recently re-watched his 2008 TED Talk, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives”. There are a number of salient points I find worth sharing.

Societies and cultures are incredibly complex systems that have evolved over thousands of years. History teaches us social entropy is constantly at work: without vigilant care, order decays. In your garden you must care for each plant in the way best suited to its individual growth or it will wilt away. Similarly, if each component of society is not properly cared for it will decay into chaos. Haidt’s research found that,

“[liberals] want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. [Conservatives] want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose.”

Like the yin is the complement rather than competitor to the yang, liberal and conservative approaches “form a balance on change and stability.” To avoid chaos, liberals can learn restraint from conservatives. To create a more just society, conservatives can learn enthusiasm for change from liberals.

In an era of increasing tribalism and distrust for those on the other side of the political spectrum it is important to step back and recognize both conservative and liberal perspectives are needed for a balanced and healthy democracy.