Jun 26, 2008

Democratising the presidency

Barack Obama may or may not make it to the White House but he has already made a vital difference to American politics. He has democratised the sources of campaign finance, that crucial element of any election campaign that played a not insignificant role in Mr Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton. In US election campaigns, as in most such campaigns across the world, it is typically the big businesses/lobby groups that fund political parties or their candidates who, in turn, try and do something for their benefactors without making it too obvious a quid pro quo — though that has not prevented the occasional scandal from surfacing. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law tried to fix the problem in the US by putting a ceiling on individual donations at $2,000, which after adjusting for inflation is now pegged at $2,300. This changed the way funds were raised, because aggregators became the new players in the game.
To say that Mr Obama found his way round the problem by using the internet would be to diminish his innovative effort; what he did was to tap into the whole social networking phenomenon on the internet — so, My.BarackObama.com wasn't just a website, it encouraged people to network on it socially. You could, if you wished, just log in and give a donation; you could also opt for a subscription model which ensured you went back month after month; and set up your own page soliciting donations and then persuade your friends to make donations. Another button, "Make Calls", gave volunteers a list of phone numbers to call in order to spread the word (the internet's faster version of bumper stickers). You could download Obama ring-tones, even SMS updates in much the same way you'd get them for a Twenty20 match. Mr Obama's new-age campaign has netted him $200 million from 1,276,000 donors; in addition, he has got 750,000 active volunteers and 8,000 affinity groups. Not surprisingly, Mr Obama used Silicon Valley venture capitalists to help create his campaign finance model. A $200 million campaign fund from small individuals, it is important to note, means that an Obama presidency, should there be one, will not be obliged to favour big business.
Mr Obama plans to use the internet to transform the American presidency, if he gets the chance. This includes online chats and putting out legislation on the net for public comments before it becomes law. A White House blog, some say, is a near certainty. Whether Mr Obama can deliver a genuinely participative presidency is an open question. But there can be little doubt that Senator Obama has made a great start.

No comments: