Peter Espeut , Contributor
One of the big flaws in democracy is that its wheels require grease to turn. Since they need money to finance their campaigns and their largesse with supporters, politicians have to pander to people with big money to get some of it. Then comes payback time.
Yet, one of the foundations of democracy is that government is not only 'of the people and by the people' but that it is also 'for the people', rather than being for those with big money - the special interests who fund political parties to buy influence. A democracy becomes mature when it puts adequate checks and balances in place.
The United States has such a mature democracy, where all donations to politicians, political parties and affiliated groups must be declared, and this information is made available to the public, for example, on a website. That way, those who watch over the integrity of their democracy can more easily detect whether favours are being granted in exchange for political donations, detracting from the interests of the people as a whole.
Of course, such transparency cannot prevent bribery and influence peddling; it only makes its detection easier. As long as the system demands that politicians hold out their hands to those with money, influence will be peddled and favours bought.
One of the attractive things about how Barack Obama does his fund-raising is that he does not rely only on big money. Obama specialises in small-dollar, grass-roots fund-raising, while Mr Romney's donors were more likely to make the maximum allowed donation (US campaign-finance laws strictly limit the amount any one person can give to a candidate's campaign to US$2,500 during the nomination race, and another US$2,500 up to the election itself; readers may wish to compare this to the political donation of US$65,000 made to the JLP to hire the lobbyists Manatt, Phelps & Phillips over the Dudus affair).
Last August, for example, Obama's campaign raised US$114 million, while Romney's raised US$111 million. Team Obama noted that its 1.1 million August donors gave an average of US$58, and that more than 317,000 were first-time donors; some 98 per cent of the donations were for US$250 or less. In contrast, for Team Romney, about 31 per cent of their donations came through contributions of less than US$250.
Connected to the grass roots
With only two per cent of Obama's August contributions being over US$250, this means special interests have little sway over him. If anyone has sway over him it is the grass-roots man, the small donor, which is who he should be accountable to anyway. I hope and wish and pray that one day I will be able to say the same about Jamaican politics!
I find the exit polls of US voters last Tuesday interesting. When voters were asked which candidate had a vision for the future, Romney won - 55 per cent to 43 per cent. Asked about Obama's signature achievement (health care), 49 per cent said they wanted it repealed in part or whole. Voters also said the federal government was too large, which is a criticism of Obama and the Democratic Party.
Voters who cared about the economy picked Romney by one percentage point over Obama, 49 per cent to 48 per cent. With these poll results, Romney should have won handsomely.
But Americans seem to want more than someone who can fix the economy. When voters were asked which candidate cared more about them, Obama won more than 80 per cent of those voters, to Romney's 20 per cent. American voters want someone they think cares about them. It is the empathy, stupid!
And there may, indeed, be a link between the copious grass-roots political contributions to Barack Obama and the belief in his empathy.
But what is also interesting is Obama's performance over the last four years. Despite not being in the pocket of special-interest groups and the 'big man', Obama's policies still pandered to Wall Street, and made things more difficult for the poor. Maybe he always had one eye on his re-election bid; but despite not being much better off, the poor again voted to re-elect Obama. Maybe the poor are saying they had even less hope in Romney.
This reminds me of our electorate in Jamaica who continue to vote for Portia 'because she loves the poor', despite the fact that after 35 years, her constituency is as poor as ever. Maybe there is even less confidence in the JLP.
But Jamaicans require no declaration of political donations, and our politicians pander to big men with money. Where is our hope?
Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to email@example.com.