Friday, June 27, 2008
Last week I blogged about my lost faith in McCain, as well as the fact that I see two indications this may be the year the People began to take back the political process, if not their country (see McCain's YouTube Problem). There I discussed the first of these indications, the rise of a citizen media, especially using YouTube as a national television network not under the control of the wealthy elite and the incompetent networks. This will forever change politics and public discourse. But there are two pillars of power: knowledge and money. YouTube and the Internet have allowed people to take back control of the dissemination of information. Knowledge is now available. All we need are the skills to separate the wheat from the chaff. But what about money?
Politics up until now has been in the hands of the wealthy and corporate elite because the American media market is so expensive. A minimum of a hundred million dollars is needed to get any significant exposure that can reach a sufficiently broad base of voters. And realistically, two or three hundred million are needed to compete. The citizen media can get information out, but it can't buy exposure (otherwise you have to already be looking). Thus not only must we take back control of the media, beating the rich at their own game there, but we must also beat them at the money game. True, they outbuy us in cash. But we outnumber them. And now we're starting to notice.
Not only is Barack Obama's campaign primarily funded by ordinary citizens, with very little from any particular special interest group, but (far more importantly) he raised nearly three hundred million dollars from nearly three hundred thousand donors, something never before imagined. Ten times more of that total came in small donations (under $200) than for any other candidate in history, something also never thought possible before now (see Small Donors Rewrite Fundraising Handbook, but also the must-read article in The Atlantic discussed below). In fact, the majority of the money Obama has raised so far (up to mid-2008) has come from individual donations of $200 or less.
The staid assumption has been that only ultra-rich special interests could provide the vast cash required to campaign competitively in the enormously expensive U.S. media market. That assumption has now been refuted. If this continues into future elections, we will see more candidates funded by the people than by the corporations, which would forever transform American politics, shifting the balance of power (at least in good part) back to where the Constitution says it belongs: We the People.
Think about it. If everyone who will vote for a candidate donated a mere $50, their candidate would have more than enough resources to campaign competitively and win more votes and thus more donations, all without having to court special interests (in what amounts now to a system of legal bribery). Do the math: a mere one million voters would generate fifty million dollars; ten million voters, five hundred million; twenty million voters, one billion dollars. All without a single donor ever giving the candidate any more than just fifty bucks. Once.
Though sometimes people hear about Obama's top donors being some corporation or other, these are bundlers of employee donation networks, which are actually collections of small donations volunteered by employees, not voted or negotiated or required or encouraged by the companies delivering the money. This is true for all candidates, so you often can't count on donor lists to tell the difference between these sources and others more sinister, such as bundlers who actively go out and "find" the cash support to bundle up for a candidate, a tactic routinely used to bypass campaign finance law, giving lobbyists who bundle inordinate influence on candidates. But not all bundling works like that.
For example, the second largest contributor to Obama's campaign is the University of California (see Open Secret), at nearly half a million dollars (still tiny compared to his total war chest), but obviously the UC board of directors didn't vote to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the state education budget to send to a political candidate: the money comes from a voluntary donation network that allows employees to donate whatever they want to whomever they please, just like company charity donation programs. Thus, UC did not lobby for Obama or pay him anything, it just collected the private donations of individual citizens and sent them on (see the quite correct analysis of similar obfuscations by We Need Obama). Though this does give bundlers some influence, it is not even remotely the same thing as getting a privately-negotiated windfall from a cabal of oil men using a bundler as a cut-out, or gaining any other mass of lobbyist-raised donations the same way, or, say, getting the free use of the Enron corporate jet for campaign travel (like Bush), or other acts of covert bribery.
In essence, no company or lobbying group or fat cat can say to Obama "we brought you a million dollars last campaign, so you owe us, or else you won't be seeing that million in the next campaign," because no one actually controls any of his funding (at least not any significant amount of it), which is almost all volunteered by individual supporters (and even if the portion that wasn't were withdrawn, he would still have more money than McCain had raised before this quarter). Thus Obama is really only beholden to the people who are voting for him, because most of his money (in fact all the money he would ever need) comes from them, and the only way to keep that money coming is to make them happy. In other words, to make voters happy. In other words, to make We the People happy. And that's the way democracy should work.
It would be a shame if we voted instead for Old Politics, rather than proving to ourselves and the future, that we want this other kind of politics. We want the New Politics. We want candidates who get paid by their voters and no one else. Obama isn't there yet, but he is the first to nearly get there, and the first to try. Hence a vote for Obama is a vote for change, in a far more momentous and fundamental way than most people realize. After all, which sort of world do you want to live in? Decide. Then vote for it in November.
As I said in my last post, and again in comments there, though no candidate is ever a hero and every human being is flawed, and though Obama has to play the game a lot (so there is a lot of rhetoric that can't be taken seriously from him anymore than from any other candidate), and though I'm sure he is a devout Christian and plays that up as much as possible (as one evidently must), on balance he is the better choice even apart from giving our stamp of approval to his way of raising money. But we have the latter reason, too.
Some still argue Obama is inexperienced. A really good article about the new politics of citizen finance is Joshua Green's "The Amazing Money Machine" for The Atlantic. Green's article also illustrates the best case against the claim that Obama is too inexperienced to be President. It's a claim that makes Silicon Valley laugh: nearly every great company in history has been launched to success by young men with sparse-to-nonexistent resumes. It's the old and "experienced" CEOs who seem far more prone to tank the companies they're over-paid to fix. As one successful businessman said, "We recognize what great companies have been built on, and that's ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership."
The fact of the matter is, you don't need experience. You hire it. It's called a cabinet. No candidate can ever have the experience needed to run the country. There is just too much to know. Hence good leaders rely on talented expert advisors and employees, whose experience is what this country really needs. Just think what the difference would have been if Bush had put an experienced man in charge of FEMA instead of a know-nothing political buddy whose most recent qualification was serving as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have no more experience relevant to running FEMA than Obama does, or Bush did. Hence what matters is who they appoint to run it, not whether they have the experience to run it themselves. And the same applies to every other responsibility of government. Thus what matters is not experience, but judgment. Who will exercise the best judgment in hiring advisors and administrators?
The people understand this, even when they get it wrong. Evidently half the country thought an inexperienced Bush had the judgment to run this country well, when instead he ran it into the ground, becoming an eternal textbook example of bad decision-making (which pretty much most people now acknowledge). But this wasn't because of his lack of experience, it was because of his lack of judgment. Even decisions the President must make him(or hers)self can only be sound if based on the judgment, experience, and advice of other men and women who know what they're talking about, something Bush doesn't get, as he surrounds himself with yes-men instead of anyone with real competence or candor. That's why the Iraq War has been such a travesty that it's made the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. McCain may be a military man, but he has never conducted wars, and would not know any better how to do that than anyone else. He would rely on the Joint Chiefs every bit as much as Clinton did or Obama would. In fact, the less interference from the President in war matters the better (as Clinton quickly learned the hard way).
But no matter what you think about that, we can change the future if we all started donating $50 to the candidate we want to see President. If every candidate could bring in several hundred million dollars from just a couple of million voters, think how politics would forever change in this country. And whether you support Obama or not, please think about joining this revolution in Presidential campaign finance. Make it a permanent reality in America. And yes, that even means you Third Party fans. Regardless of who you ultimately vote for, imagine if every member of the Libertarian Party gave $50 to Bob Barr. He would then have ten million dollars to campaign for more support. If he could use that to leverage a tenfold increase in that support, he'd have a hundred million dollars. And with the kind of exposure that could buy, if he really is an inspiring candidate (a caveat that third party fans too often forget), he could win over just a few million more citizen donors. He only needs 3% of registered voters to send him fifty bucks and he would have as much money as Barack Obama.
If you really want to break the two party system, is this not the way? For now, I'm voting for Obama because he's the best man who can actually get there, and McCain scares me in a way he never did before. But I'm also voting for the new politics that Obama's campaign has proven really does work. Because I want to see this become the way that things are always done.