Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Show me the money!

I was in WOUB's election HQ last night updating the results from Athens county. An exchange student from Germany, a young woman, made a remark about how the German election system is better. 

"We have 5 parties," she said, referring to the most addition of the Linke, or Left party. This populist group was catapulted onto the national German stage by winning over 5 percent of the vote in several state elections this year. 

Beside the fact the young woman has a simplistic understanding of western political science (ummm, are we really going to hold Italy's bajillion multi-party system as a model of democracy? They've had 50 different governments since 1945 and umm, Berlusconi....well, need I say more?), it was also clear to me she hasn't taken a very close view of how this particular American presidential election was won. 


Barack Obama outspent John McCain by opting out of the public financing system, a significant departure for a major party candidate. McCain, champion of campaign finance reform, stuck with the public money route. You could say Barack Obama beat the Republicans at their own game: the GOP is well known for their flush coffers from major donors and PACS. George W. Bush well outspent John Kerry in 2000, and even Al Gore too in 2000. Money talks, and money wins, as Barack Obama has proved yet again in this presidential election. 


Barack Obama's money came from a mix of lots of small donors and big ones. I think this is what non-Americans, especially our horrified democratic brothers and sisters across the pond, find so shocking: no limits. Let's take our German friend mentioned above. Her experience of political campaigns is that they are short, they are heavily regulated in their funding, and let's face it, German politics are pretty boring. No Barack Obama equivalent running for office in Germany. Not even a George W. Bush for that matter, although the CSU, the ultra conservative party, provides no end of amusement for Germany's liberal media - but they're not a major party in Germany either. 

There's no doubt in my mind that this election was not won on a level playing field when one candidate chose public financing and the other didn't. History shows us that every single president outspent his opponent. But we believe campaign donations are also a form of democracy - free speech if  you will. Obama not only proved his merit as a candidate on the issues: he also persuaded lots of people from diverse groups to give him money. That says more to the Democratic Party than anyone else, but it also shows a degree of civic engagement that does not exist in Germany. In fact, they are punished for it. 


One of the arguments I made against Germany's election system (where the party decides by a list who runs things, instead of directly electing a candidate) is that it limits minorities from participation. She of course adamantly denied this - Germans are sensitive about these things. But it could be worse for immigrants and minorities in Germany: they could be living in France

There's a great little book by Mely Kiyak, a Kurdish-Turkish-German, called 10 for Germany. Fuer die Deutschsprachigen das Buch heisst 10 fuer Deutschland: Gespraeche mit tuerkeistaemmigen Abgeordneten. It's a collection of interviews with politicians with Turkish roots in Germany. It's next to near impossible for minorities to get elected off the list within the parties in Germany - they have to be elected by mandate.  Like how we elect politicians in the U.S. - your name appears on the ballot. 

Kiyak provides one interview that I think is a classic example of what new Germans face when they choose to engage in the political process if they have a little initiative. One young gentleman ran with the Green Party for a local seat, he knocked door to door, and get this: he spent a few thousand euros of his own money to buy lawns signs and campaign literature. Sounds like a typical American campaign. 

He got into trouble. The Green Party slapped him on the wrist for violating campaign finance laws, which are quite strict in Germany. He won the election by quite a bit - surprise! Connecting with voters actually works. When he decided to run again, he fled the Greens and went to the FDP, the free market, libertarian party. What I love about this story is that the Greens hold themselves up as the party that defends the rights of immigrants and minorities (and I'll give them some credit - they thankfully changed Germany's racist citizenship laws in 2002 during the coalition government with the Social Democrats.)

If this guy ran in a local election in the U.S., at least where I'm from in Minnesota, he'd be courted to serve on boards of directors, courted by policymakers to work for them, or parties to run a race for office. But in Germany, this type of thing is frowned upon, nee, illegal! Barack Obama could not win in Germany, at least not at the speed which Obama has ascended to the presidency.


It's true: Europeans love him. The world loves him. They are enchanted with the cult of his personality, as some were by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. But I would argue that Obama benefits from a political system like the U.S. So this young German exchange student, who loves Obama, but hates our election system, is in a bit of quandary. Her European contemporaries think he's got it right on the issues - but what about how he got elected to office? If you're a true western European, you believe in public financing - and Obama doesn't. (Actually, I think he would argue that he used true public financing - by getting lots of small donations for his campaign.

But it's easy to love America, just as it's easy to hate America. It's a frustratingly complicated country. It's even hard for me as an American to understand the idiocy of policymaking, and yes, my fellow Americans. 

And yet I still believe the United States is the place for those who want a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. A place where the rule of law can devastate human rights, and then reinvent itself to create one of the freest societies on the planet. I suppose that's the great story of the presidential election: our ability as Americans to reinvent ourselves...and indeed, redeem ourselves. A lesson for the world to learn from, and a responsiblity we should not take lightly. 

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