The election of Barack Obama is historic in many ways, most significantly in the progression along the troubled history of race in the United States. On Tuesday, Americans turned out in record numbers to give Obama a decisive win and vault the first African-American into the highest office in that country. The Obama team also set new records along the fundraising front and may indeed set a precedent for the financing of elections in the future.
According to opensecrets.org, a website on money in politics run by the Centre for Responsive Politics, Senator Obama raised $639 million during the 2008 Presidential election cycle with 91% of that sum coming from individual donations. Comparatively, Senator McCain raised $360 million, 54% coming from the same type; the majority of the dollars from each candidate’s campaign came from people making personal donations to their favourite candidate. A striking difference between campaigns was Obama’s refusal of public funding. The Illinois senator took $0 of public financing while his Republican counterpart from Arizona took over $84 million to make up 23% of his campaign’s spending power.
We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.
It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory. — President-elect Barack Obama, Chicago November 4th, 2008
In Canada, the Reform Party under Preston Manning started a tradition of passing the hat in church basements and legion halls during rallies, speeches or simple administrative meetings. A donation of $5, $20 or $100 was passed on to bring change to Ottawa. The tradition continues today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, though in a much more sophisticated way and one that is buoyed by databases and telemarketing. Conservatives have historically raised an average individual donation of about $100 while Liberals used to depend on fewer but larger sums. Jean Chretien –perhaps to kneecap his long-coveting Prime Ministerial successor — changed the way election financing was done in Canada by banning corporate and union donations. Chretien replaced the private financing of political parties by special interests with public financing by government. For each vote that a party earns during an election, that party receives $1.75 per year from the federal treasury.
On the surface, this reconfiguration of campaign financing seems to rebalance the funding equation from powerful institutions to those that ought to have the first and last word in any democracy. Indeed, voters are empowered not only when they give campaigns their vote but also when they do so with the knowledge that instead of corporate or union backing, there is a small financial sum that comes with each ballot cast that sustains parties instead. However, while Chretien’s system solves one problem, it creates another.
In Quebec where a province defaults to the inert rather than the principled, a problem exists with Chretien’s model of campaign financing. The Bloc Quebecois, doing all it could to supress its core principle of sovereignty for that province, rather stood against — indeed, as a block to — Conservative ideas in the 2008 general election and against Liberal corruption in 2006. In the first half of this year, the Bloc raised just over $70,000 but received $1.5 million in public financing. Donations are a result of direct support whereas that larger windfall comes from standing against something rather than offering something better. The Bloc Quebecois would not exist if it had to rely upon direct non-governmental financing from supporters.
This summer, I met a member of the Obama campaign’s senior staff in New York City. Discussing the presidential campaign and some Canadian politics, I was told that the Liberal Party had approached the Obama campaign to attain some insight into their fundraising capacity and to create a similar system in Canada so that a large number of small donors could fill their campaign war chest. The staffer told me that after initial discussions, the Liberal Party never followed up in any significant way.
A tried-and-true election strategy for the Liberal Party has been to strike fear into the electorate about what a Conservative administration might mean for Canada. In the last election we were warned that a Conservative majority would allow Harper to finally implement his hidden agenda. Yet the Conservatives in power have not been innocent of taking this lower path either. Defining Stephane Dion as a weak leader and scaring the electorate as to what his “tax on everything” would mean to the economy took a negative track and suggested people vote against, rather than for the Conservatives. People are goaded out of fear to vote against and they often hold their nose for the not-as-offensive choice they end up “supporting”. Since money comes from support, we should break the model that rewards false support and strengthen one that challenges parties to offer ideas rather than fear. Government subsidization of political parties hurts Canadian politics.
The motto of Barack Obama’s campaign for President was “Yes We Can”. Under the current Canadian system, we give welfare to parties for being best able to convince Canadians of the other parties, “No They Can’t”. If we made politics about the positive (Yes), responsibility of self (We) and enablement (Can) rather than the negative (No), what one’s opponent would do (They) and a need to stop them (Can’t), perhaps we could reduce voter apathy both at the ballot box and when parties pass the hat. If we gave voters more power to finance those they support rather than sustain those they least detest we could shift Canadian politics for the better.
On Tuesday, American politics changed. It is time to end campaign welfare so that we can replace politics that scares with that which inspires.
Yes we can.