A.C. Townley was the founder of the Nonpartisan League, which within only three years of its founding in 1915 took over the government of North Dakota and enacted several major reforms. That makes the NPL one of the most impressive political organizations in American history. Townley was able to do this through a combination of luck, timing and a keen understanding of politics. He was determined to avoid the failings of past organizations that relied on loose commitment to principles.

The Nonpartisan League started with a clear, precise platform that was simple to understand. The NPL asked supporters to sign a pledge to support the platform, and it expected them to support candidates endorsed by the NPL, regardless of political party. It always stressed the importance of organizing into a tight association that could work as one toward a single goal. The NPL realized that the only reason farmers did not hold all the political power in North Dakota, despite making up the vast majority of the population, was because they weren’t organized.

To advance this, NPL asked potential supporters to become dues-paying members in the organization, and all received a subscription to the “Nonpartisan Leader,” which enabled the League to communicate directly to them. This created a clear unifying platform, a metric of success and a buy-in from the farmers. From “Political Prairie Fire” by Robert Morlan:

The dues for the new organization were first set at $2.50 a year, to be collected by the organizer on the spot, but when it was seen how expensive organizing and campaigning was going to be, they were raised to $6, within a year to $9, and after the first campaign were set at $16 for each two-year period corresponding with the term of state office holders. Townley argued with considerable logic that if a farmer had put his money into a project, he would stick with it even if only to get a return on his investment. He put the matter with characteristic profanity: “Make the rubes pay their God-damn money to join and they’ll stick—stick till hell freezes over.”

There are several key advantages to stocking a political organization with dues-paying members.

  1. Commitment: This is Townley’s most important point. Paying membership dues invests people in the organization. By paying, regardless of how small a fee, a member makes a continuous financial and psychological commitment to the organization and its goals. The process makes people more dedicated to the organization and increases their desire to see it succeed. It also makes it easier for people to quickly gauge the power of the organization by seeing how many individuals are invested in its goals.
  2. Long-term planning: Organizations with dues-paying members have the freedom to do proper long-term planning. It allows an organization to project what its financial resources will be in the future, making it possible to plan long- term actions. This is crucial for success in policy and politics. Political change is often a long and slow process that happens only with continuous pressure in the desired direction. A steady income stream also frees up time away from the constant struggle of fundraising.
  3. Independence from outside pressure: Dues-based groups rely only on their broad base of members for funding. They are not constantly chasing donations and grants. This provides freedom, which an organization can’t have if it becomes dependent on funding from just a few major sources. Any organization depending on only a few big outside sources of funding will always be at the mercy of those sources.
  4. Accountability: Dues-based organizations are accountable to the broad wishes of their membership, not to a few wealthy donors. To maintain membership, groups need clear goals, and they need to prove they’re working constantly toward those goals if they want support. They exist only as long as they have strong commitment from their members. This helps insure an organization that reflects the collective desire of its membership.

Financial independence combined with a committed and organized membership makes organizations with dues-paying members into serious political forces. They are capable of directing at once the three most important things in politics: votes, donations and volunteers. This is their source of power.

Both at the turn of the 20th century and today, wealthy corporate leaders have the money, desire and ability to buy our politics. The corrupting influence of corporate political spending is a huge obstacle to overcome. The only way regular people can fight it is by joining organizations that share their goals. Big money can’t buy committed voters and volunteers. When an organization is able to direct both of those and generate sufficient campaign funds from dues-paying members, it can be an even greater political force, not drowned out by overwhelming spending by corporations.

Not surprisingly, some of the most successful political associations of regular Americans are based on paying dues. In addition to the Nonpartisan League of the past, we have today the power of the NRA. Most of the politically powerful organizations now have dues-paying membership, from labor unions to the AMA and the AARP.