by Peter Bearse Ph.D.
2008 is shaping up to be a truly historic election, but not because it’s a free-for-all for President. It’s a contest far from free. The minimum price of entry is about $10 million dollars. Thus, it’s on track to be historic, but not in a way any of us might like -- certifying the fact that politics is now in the iron grip of big money. The historic question we face in 2008 is this: An obscene, money-based, or a healthy, people-based politics?
Look at what’s already happening a year and a half early. Candidates’ campaigns for President have already spent over $150 million during the first quarter of this year – over 1&1/2 years in advance of the ’08 elections! So, we’re looking at a race for President that’s already excessive – off the scale in terms of both time and money.
As long as big money dominates campaigns, people won’t count for much except as voters and consumers of media campaign buys. Candidates are caught up in a financial arms race. No one has yet had the guts to say “enough” -- not even one of the authors of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, a.k.a., the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act” (BCRA). Each candidate feels pressed to outdo the other in fundraising. No one can financially disarm or even suggest financial-arms control.
Candidates are constantly driven by the media to be “dialing for dollars.” Media use an index of dollars raised to rank candidates. Anyone that can’t keep pace with the money race is declared to be no longer “viable” as a candidate – no matter how many people may be interested in what that candidate has to say; no matter how many activists may be volunteering time to help the campaign. Nor has anyone been honest enough to stand up and say that BCRA and other attempts to “reform” campaign finance have failed. The “Straight Talk Express” has been derailed. The big money train now runs full-steam down the track.
The deadly-simple fact of political life is that political parties, candidates and elected officials are influenced far more by big money donors than by the votes of any of us peons that do no more than vote. The 2006 election results don’t contradict this fact since big money donors are divided on Iraq. Imagine how little you count if you don’t vote! – Zero! Even the fact that a candidate like Obama has been attracting many small dollar contributions doesn’t deny the dominance of “big money.” The 80/20 rule applies: At least 80% of the total money raised comes via no more than 20% of contributors.
What if the media were to acknowledge the value of donations of time by political volunteers? Even if valued at minimum wage, the total dollar amount could be huge. If their time is valued at, say, $6/hr., how many volunteers would be required, contributing an average of only 2 hours per week, to equal the highest amount raised ($26 million, by the Clinton campaign) by a candidate during the last quarter? This answer is 166,667 volunteers. Has Hillary inspired that many volunteers to help nationwide? Obama? Wouldn’t it be great for democracy in America if campaigns turned into a competition to see how many Americans could be inspired to come out to work for their candidates, rather than see political participation as just a matter of voting or check-writing? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the media could overcome their conflict of interest over political fundraising [they obviously benefit from paid political advertising] in order to urge people to take back their politics from the political pro’s, big money interests and media buyers? Then the 2008 elections would be truly historic! If this doesn’t happen at the Presidential election level, will some candidate(s) for Congress show the way? For the sake of our precious democratic republic, let us not only hope that such candidates step forward, but that we would, too, to give him or her a hand as well as a buck.
All this underlines the very special nature of our state’s “First in the Nation” primary. What makes it unique among primaries is not that it is first but that it is the only primary that rests on a people- rather than money-based politics. Other states may move up the dates of their primaries but they are hard put to compete with New Hampshire in terms of grassroots political participation. Now if this quality of NH politics could be heightened between presidential primary years! Then NH would be a true leader, inspiring people nationwide to “take back their politics”!
California may move up the date of its primary but it cannot compete with New Hampshire in terms of grassroots political participation. Now, if this quality of NH politics could only be maintained between presidential primary years! Then NH would be a leader, inspiring people nationwide to “take back their politics”!
PETER BEARSE, author of WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism, Fremont, 4/9/07, 895-8487 and/or email@example.com.