When the rich are outvoted, as frequently happens, it is the joint treasury of the poor which exceeds their accumulations. Every man owns something, if it is only a cow or a wheelbarrow or his arms, and so has that property to dispose of.
So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Essays, Poems, Addresses of 1844. Today we are witnessing an unprecedented pooling of the people’s treasury in the revolutionary financing of a candidate for president in what could be seen as the clearest outvoting of the rich by the poor(er) in our nation’s history. And, in an undeniably ironic twist, Barack Obama’s record-setting figures for fundraising from average contributors is the ultimate example of capitalism at work in an American election, an election in which the Republican candidate has taken government regulated public funds, while painting his opponent as a socialist.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what the Obama campaign has accomplished. Their just released figures for the month of September are staggering: over $150 million dollars raised, all through private citizens, with an average donation of less than $100 per contributor. In that one month alone, they added 632,000 new donors, totaling over 3.1 million contributors to the campaign. Their largest contributing groups are retirees and students, neither of which make up the wealthiest demographics of society.
For the first time in the history of US elections, regular people are able to directly impact a campaign by opening their wallets. Nurses, firemen, schoolteachers, and yes, even plumbers, have paid for this candidate’s run for the highest office, giving sometimes as little as $5 or $10, and if he succeeds, he will be beholden to their interests, and not to those of the large corporations or wealthy donors that usually make up the majority of a campaign’s bank account.* If one of the principles of democracy is that “all members of the society have equal access to power,” can it not be said that we are finally truly witnessing democracy at work in our presidential elections?
So who, or what, is to credit for this historical democratization of the campaign financing process? The candidate himself, as the leader of his campaign, certainly is due some credit. However his responsibility for this unprecedented feat can only go so far; he obviously put the right people in place to handle it, and it is their know-how, coupled by the timing in the evolution of web-based technology that should be congratulated for the achievement here. Additionally, perhaps, is the element of readiness on the part of the people. We are the eBay, amazon.com and Facebook generation, whether twenty-one or seventy-one, Americans increasingly do everything online, from networking with friends, to planning a party, to getting our news, to buying a car. Perhaps not even as recent as four years ago were we ready for the revolution in politics that the internet could offer. Or perhaps we were, but no candidate knew how to take advantage of it. In any case, here we are, with an amazing 46% of adult Americans getting involved in the political process via the internet, whether it’s simply following the candidates’ campaigns online, or pulling out their credit cards to help their chosen one cross the finish line.
John McCain’s campaign, by contrast, did not pull in a huge number of small contributions by ordinary citizens, but rather opted, as all presidential candidates have done since Watergate, to accept public financing, which greatly limited what they could receive, and spend. As they try to compete against the Obama juggernaut which is overwhemingly outspending them in the most crucial final leg of the race, they are looking to increase their coffers through campaign finance loopholes that allow them to collect large donations from wealthy donors. Obama is also receiving contributions from wealthy donors, though the numbers pale in comparison to what his campaign has collected from small donors.*
McCain has admitted to possessing very limited knowledge of computers and the internet, so he is clearly not the candidate to helm an online fundraising force like Obama is. Due to the obvious imbalance in the two campaigns in this regard, it is impossible to draw any tempting conclusions in reference to people voting with their wallets, we have to rely on the old-fashioned polls for our gauge of the political temperature on either side. But let’s say that the Republicans take a page from Obama’s playbook and build their own populace-based fundraising machine next time around (and I don’t doubt they will). I think it is safe to assume that we are looking at a whole new era of campaign financing. And here, another irony: John McCain famously fought in the Senate to reform a campaign financing system that he rightfully saw as corrupt and out of control. And yet it is during his run for the presidency that the system finally is truly reformed… by his opponent.
“Under the dominion of an idea which possesses the minds of multitudes, as civil freedom or the religious sentiment, the powers of persons are no longer subjects of calculation. A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom or conquest can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means,” wrote Emerson. From the clear divisions of political sentiment in this country, we cannot say that we are a nation of one mind, or that one candidate, one man, has brought the entire population under the dominion of an idea, or set of ideas. But we can regard what the Obama campaign has achieved in this election cycle as extravagant actions, certainly, as it has studied lessons from the past, embraced the technology and mood of the present and reinvented the future of campaign financing, defying all expectations and odds, and most definitely out of all proportion to its means. “Public” campaign financing is dead, long live campaign financing by the public!
Think about it: what is the public financing system but one of the very socialist constructs that we Americans so vociferously reject? Funds collected from the public by the government are doled out to the candidates with restrictions and regulations attached, while forbidding the use of the free market to get a candidate’s message out to the people. Like all socialist institutions, the aims behind the adoption of such a system were noble ones, but in practice it just doesn’t work in safeguarding against corruption; on the contrary, it may lead to even greater corruption via the need to circumvent the system and appeal to wealthy supporters. Thus to those that buy the claims by his opponents that Obama is a socialist, I would point to his campaign as a bellwether of his likely leadership on policy initiatives and legislation. He understood the current system was broken, he realized the potential of access to unlimited funds via the public, and in the most astonishing democratization of capitalism that we have ever seen in a presidential election, he is riding the waves of the free market to the White House. And that’s an all American pig that doesn’t need any lipstick.
*A New York Times article this morning examined the contributions by wealthy donors to both candidates via fund-raising committees that allow much higher donations than the campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give to the campaigns directly. The argument could certainly be made that Obama may in fact feel beholden to these individuals that are giving $25,000 or $30,000 each to help him reach the White House. However the article states that there were only about 2000 such contributors to his campaign, for a total of less than $150 million through September. Compared to the 3.1 million small donors for a total of $605 million raised, it doesn’t change the fact that the campaign is still overwhelmingly funded by average citizens contributing less than $100 each. It should be noted that the McCain campaign has raised more money than the Obama camp through these wealthy donors, as the limits on the Republican side were raised to $70,000 per donor in the fine print.