Monday, May 19, 2008

UNDERVIEWS: OUR PRESIDENTIAL OBSESSION

RICHARD BELL In reading the never-ending conversation among progressives about choosing between an idealistic vote for president or a pragmatic, less-of-two-evils vote, I think we should clearly confront the enormous seduction of presidential politics.

On the one hand, the last office where insurgent political movements are likely to have an impact is the office of President. The playing field is vast, the amount of money involved is in the hundreds of millions, and party hacks have had decades to construct layer after layer of party rules, convention rules, and FEC regulations to minimize the impact of any threat to the underlying economics of the one-party corporate state.

Likewise, the probability of success increases as one moves down the ballot, where the candidates and the voters get closer and closer together.

Yet time and again, especially in presidential election years, we find that the vast majority of progressive energy and money winds up being sucked into the maw of presidential politics, leaving progressive down ballot candidates gasping for resources.

Take money. There is much breast-beating about the huge numbers of small online donors. And compared to having few small donors, the increase has to be welcomed. But one has to stop and ask, what is really going on here? Who's getting this online money? What are the expectations of these online donors? And what will their reactions be when the presidential candidates fail to meet their expectations by, say, not getting out of Iraq?

Look at these numbers from a May 13, 2008 report from the Campaign Finance Institute showing that Democratic House candidates have been outraising their Republican counterparts:

Significantly, these advantages have not been based on the small donor fundraising that has been so important in the first months of 2008 to the presidential campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. From Jan. 1, 2007 through March 31, 2008, Obama raised $232 million, 45% of which came in contributions of $200 or less. Clinton raised $172 million over the same fifteen-month period, with 30% coming in amounts of $200 or less.

By way of contrast, the 1,001 House candidates registered so far with the Federal Election Commission raised a total of $447 million between Jan. 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008. Less than 10% of this total arrived in amounts of $200 or less. This is virtually unchanged from past years. At this time in the cycle, candidates had raised 10% of their money in amounts of $200 or less in, 11% in 2004, 12% in 2002 and 15% in 2000. There is little difference among Republicans and Democrats, but incumbents typically raise a lower percentage of their money from small donors than do challengers (10% versus 16% in the 2008 cycle so far).

Even so, challengers and open seat candidates typically bring in more money from self-financing than from small donors. In districts considered to be competitive by the leading political rating services, the best-funded challengers on average have raised the same amount (14%) from small donors and self-financing.

These numbers form a stunning portrait of the seductiveness of presidential politics for the progressive online community. For a movement whose members are constantly talking about change "from the bottom up," the pattern of donations could hardly be more old-school, top down.

I should make clear that I am personally familiar with the giant sucking sound of presidential politics (as Perot might put it), having been a staffer in John Kerry's 2004 run. I have seen the sausage factory up close, and that experience makes me even more leery of progressive strategies that start at the top.

SAM SMITH, SHADOWS OF HOPE, 1994 Much that is written [about national politics] stays comfortably within the two by three mile area in which one finds the White House and the Congress, the Supreme Court and the State Department, the Pentagon, the Watergate and the National Press Club. As typical pasture in the American west, this spread could support about 120 cows and their calves. The tendency to concentrate our view of politics and of our collective selves upon this tiny enclave has accelerated in recent decades in part because of a dramatic shift in power away from fifty "united states" towards an increasingly centralized and powerful federal government.

But it has also been encouraged by a conglomerated media that requires news topics as ubiquitous as its own expanding corporate structures yet which still can be distilled into a single face or story. Thus Congress has lost power relative to the White House not merely for various political reasons, but because 535 legislators are simply too many for the media to handle. TV, in particular, treats politics much as it does wide screen movies; it snips off the right and left sides until the frame fits comfortably within the more equilateral shape of its eye. The edges of our experience are lost and we find ourselves staring at a comfortable center -- which in the case of politics, means we find ourselves endlessly watching the President while much of the rest of American democracy passes unnoticed. This preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect. Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it -- not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening.

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