It's always 'the death of democracy' when the left loses an election, isn't it?

Loosening the noose on campaign finance and political advertising is what's needed, not the opposite

On 7 June 2012 09:15

I’m going to take another stab at Mitt Romney’s old ‘corporations are people too’ comment which has been lobbed around as a ‘gaffe’ for many months now.

Citizens United notwithstanding, the issue of campaign finance in a democratic society is potentially one of the greatest areas in which the United Kingdom and the United States will have their respective internal battles for decades to come. Constitutional reform can only deliver so much.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the arguments before: corporations and their management are wealth and job creators, the unions fund the left as much as private enterprise backs the right – so on and so forth.

So why do we still seem to be suffering from circular thinking when it comes to campaign and political finance? While the issues have been argued out in terms of balancing the scales of justice in such an area – perhaps we have done little to address the true driving force behind such emotional thinking on the topic: morality.

A conservative will tell you that morality in this area is defined by the effort exerted by individuals or groups who have consequently earned enough to influence elections. The application of your labour or indeed the fruits of your labour in the political sphere one might argue, is a fundamental democratic right.

On the left, it is often remarked that ‘fairness’ should be paramount – that everyone should perhaps be able only to give a capped amount (actually the system that the US has in place when it comes to direct campaign funding). In the United Kingdom, this is slightly more relaxed, with individuals able to contribute vast amounts to political parties, as author JK Rowling did when she gave £1million to the Labour Party in 2010.

But throw in Super PACS, external organisations, unions, corporate sponsorships, think-tanks and all the other appendages of political activism and soon you have, on both sides of the pond, a fine mess indeed.

But a ‘fine mess’ is pretty much what a democratic society is. As the ‘least worst’ form of government, why should we expect narrow margins or perfect distinctions when it comes to casting votes and influencing politics? Colouring inside the lines on such issues and extrapolating that process outwards into politics reflects not a democratic or free society, but a constrained, authoritarian and indeed dictatorial tradition.

On what basis should there be a tick box system as to how much a citizen or group of citizens can exercise their democratic right? This is where the ‘fairness’ idea falls down – and is in fact shown up to be an extension of limiting the franchise, rather than extending it. You might argue that allowing the rich to influence elections disproportionately indeed effectively limits the franchise – but in practice this simply doesn’t happen. Examples can be found on both sides of the political divide about struggling campaigns and well-financed, corporate-driven agendas. For this theory to be true, Barack Obama would have to be short on cheques from Bill Maher or Sarah Jessica Parker, and in the UK, the unions would have to no longer be a part of the political process.

Effectively, democracy is a free-for-all. You’re free to vote, you’re free to associate, you’re free to protest, free to speak your mind and to influence the media narrative… and yet some would have you shackled as to what you can do with your rightfully earned cash.

I know, there are many further nuances to be addressed – not something that can be easily done in seven hundred or so words – but the crucial take-away is this: if we truly believe in a democratic system, then how do we reconcile the cherry-picking of the moral fabric of democracy within campaign finance?

Whether it is joining together (corporations are people, too?) or going solo, unsporting reactions to campaign losses simply because you couldn’t out-fundraise your opponent are last gasp attempts to delegitimise the democratic process, not to extend the franchise. No, democracy doesn’t die just because you lose an election (you’ll need to watch this video to get that).

I am, surprisingly, nearly content with the state of play on both sides of the pond, where Obama is able to outraise the Republicans on Wall Street and Harry Potter can stuff the Labour Party coffers (and all the vice versas you can think of) – but let’s see a bit more loosening of the reins, not more tightening. If we’re to believe what we’re told – Obama raised his money one dollar at time, not from Mr. Moneybags. Good for him.

The next step Britain must take to liberate politics from the state is to free the airwaves for political advertising – but that’s an issue for another time.

Raheem Kassam is the Executive Editor for The Commentator. He tweets at @RaheemJKassam

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