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Hichem Karoui: About money and democracy
September 02, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

It is always interesting to track the money that is used in politics. For if “money is scentless,” as says an old proverb, it would lead us nowhere. Yet, if the contrary happens – if we reach a fact, a place, a truth, while following money paths; if we can fathom how the system works – therefore, the old proverb is wrong: reason prevails on popular intuition.

Take as example the money of the US electoral campaign. Who can imagine the possibility of electing Congressmen and President without those huge sums of money passing along from organisations, individuals, and groups to the Republican or the Democratic camp? Is money necessary to get a president and a Congress? Maybe not. Therefore, the alternative would be undemocratic. The only way to have a government without disbursing money would be a coup. In the undemocratic world, coups are free of charge. Nobody gives, nobody takes. However, while you are sleeping at night, those in charge of your security may be attempting to change the government without consulting you. You may go to bed under a regime, and wake up under another. We have experienced these “magic changes” in the Arab region for half a century or more, and we know that coups cost nothing when they happen, but blood and pain. As blood and pain have no price, with time, coups reveal actually to be much more expensive to the society and the individual than any costly electoral campaign. Ask the Syrians and the Iraqis about it. How did they get the Baath party ruling the country for half a century? By popular consultation? Moreover, once they are in power, coups’ leaders and their clique and cronies become so hard to remove that it may take the destruction of half the country to throw them away. What is more expensive? The long and tortuous US electoral system or a little coup performed at dawn in two hours? Apparently, the Arabs are more and more aware of the unbelievable costs of their own regimes. Did you observe that the Arab Spring concerns primarily those countries where the regime has been established thanks to a coup? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria...

Let me tell you this: I have been following the US politics since many years, and honestly, it may give one the impression sometimes of quite a nasty, ruthless world, where the candidates or their teams often indulge in exchanging mischievous blows, smirching the rival in order to get the post. Moreover, lobbies, groups of interest, and other “interested” organisations and individuals, contributing big funds to the campaigns of their chosen candidate, let you think that all the beautiful discourses might be just cosmetics and powder in the eyes. Yet, since the invention of democracy by the ancient Greeks, no other political system proved to be more palatable and open to the possibilities of human progress and achievement.

The United States is not just a country; it is a continent. How would you be elected to the top-political post if nobody heard about you outside your village or your city? To make the people of 50 states follow you, it is necessary to hire a team of professionals, supported by volunteers, and disburse funds for the world’s longest and most complicated electoral campaign.

How all this works

The money used in every electoral cycle in the US is tracked by specialised think tanks and organisations of the civil society, not to mention the media. Everything is regulated by the law, including the amounts of contributions. The candidates who raise and spend millions of dollars are required to file each month a report about these funds to the Federal Election Commission.

In 2012, Barack Obama raised $384,413,128, while his rival Mitt Romney raised only $193,373,762.

Obama spent $262,968,849. Romney spent $163,205,427.

These figures may be hard to decipher. For they may suggest at first sight that Obama has more supporters than Romney, since he raised and spent more than his rival.

However, another figure has to be considered; it is the debt of every candidate. Here, we can see that while Obama has a debt of $2,832,414, his rival has zero debt. All the same, even if we deduce the debt from Obama’s funds, he still leads well before his rival. This is a sign that his campaign is sound and has reached many supporters, maybe more than Romney.

Now, if we look into the details of the figures, we would notice that it is almost the same people and organisations that contribute to the Republican or the Democratic campaigns from a cycle to another, with more or less variance.

The top contributors to any campaign tell a lot about the candidate himself and his supporters.

Obama’s top contributors in 2012 are:  1) the University of California ($491,868); 2) Microsoft Corp. ($443,748); 3) Google Inc. ($357,382); 4) DLA Piper ($331,715); 5) Harvard University ($317,516).

The top contributors to the Romney campaign are: 1) Goldman Sachs ($676,080); 2) JPMorgan Chase & Co ($520,299); 3) Morgan Stanley ($513,647); 4) Bank of America ($510,728); Credit Suisse Group ($427,560).

The previous figures leave you with the impression that while Obama is supported by the scientific and high-tech community (actually by the middle class), Romney is the candidate of the banks and the big business.

These are just examples, not all the data available on these elections. Maybe when you read this, some of you would wonder: why would anybody (organisation, groups, or individuals) contribute funds to a campaign, which will be lost, if the chosen candidate is not elected? In the first place, why simply give money?

Such questions summarise one of the biggest dilemmas concerning democracy.

Democracy, we know, is a system based on shared values and beliefs in the possibility of equality and justice. Yet, such a system would not be possible to establish and maintain, without money, which is not the most equally distributed thing in the world.

Whether the aim of democracy is to reduce the inequality among people or not, has been a much-discussed issue since the nineteenth century. It still is.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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