Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The true cost of elections

Prime Minister Harper resigned the government last Sunday, and so Canada is now in the midst of a federal election. It was supposed to be next year, thanks to Harper's own government passing a bill giving us regular elections every fourth October (2009, 2013, 2017, etc., etc.), but it changed nothing about the Westminster system that enables the PM to what he just did: resign the government early and force an election when the polls suggest it's convenient for him. If he didn't have the courage of his convictions, why even pass the law?

But be that as it may... I'm already getting away from the point I was hoping to make. The election is to be held on October 14th, so I understand. That means from start to finish, the campaign is just over a month long.

Contrast that to what goes on in the States in the electing of a president. The whole thing got started in the summer over a year ago. From start to finish, electing the President of the United States takes about 18 months. Primary after primary after primary, state after state after state, whittling down the candidates, unending TV ads, radio spots, foldouts in magazines and newspapers. I'm not just talking about how vastly tedious a US election gets, long before it happens. It occurs to me that going that route must be hideously expensive.

In a Canadian federal election, the whole thing takes place among parties who already know who their leaders are; having been chosen at single national conventions at some point, those leaders are well-known and identifiable long before the Writ of Elections is dropped. The campaign runs about five weeks. Surely, any party worth its salt has a war chest that can pay to run spots and ads for five weeks. What I mean by this is, it's a cheaper model for running elections, and that has certain ramifications.

In the US, though, the length of the campaign, the necessity of first fighting your own party in public before even thinking of taking on the opposition, and the requisite travel and getting out the word in state after state has to take a vast toll – literally – in economic terms. When we hear tales of Hillary Clinton having to "lend" her own campaign millions of dollars, just to lose, you can imagine. But what does paying for a campaign of this length and breadth imply?

I think first of all, it means that, aside from the most junior seats in the House of Representatives, political office at the federal level in the United States is utterly outside the aspirations of anyone we would consider as "average". To be in office in the United States today, really, means you have to be a millionaire. And a well-connected one (a point to which I will return in a moment). The mindset of the average legislator, or the president, must today be very, very different from that of those who make up the electorate.

Getting back to connections. To run a campaign of a year and a half, not only must one (obviously) already be of extremely independent means... no Joe Six-Pack... but it's almost de rigueur that one have powerful friends with very deep pockets. Such friends tend to be legal persons, rather than flesh-and-blood ones: corporations. You win your office indebted to "friends" who are immortal, and whose memories are eternal. Little wonder that HMOs have been able to fend off the institution of universal health care there, or that defence contractors can get funding for whatever silly, money pit project they can think up so long as they farm bits of it out to enough states to cover all the bases of the senatorial committees that approve these things.

I'm not saying there's no cynicism in our system (see my first paragraph, above), or that our system is devoid of corruption. I know that's not the case. But I've come to see that ours, arranged as it is, however accidentally, is better-suited to a country run by the grass roots. That it is possible for an average person, even an immigrant, to get elected to the Commons and even to the Cabinet if they show promise. I'm not saying there aren't rich people in the Commons; sure there are. But in this country, I think the hyper-rich concern themselves elsewhere, rather than actually governing. And I think the difference is most in evidence right now, when the duration of our entire election will be contained within theirs. Ours, only just begun, will be over while theirs, already over a year in the making, will still be going on.

And who will they owe when it's all over, and what will they owe?

1 comment:

Peter said...

Just think:
If Representative Democracy has always been anything other than truly representative (and how could a tiny minority of privileged people represent the needs of the whole working class?), how much worse must it be in these times when, as you say, political parties are effectively in the payroll of Oil and Pharmaceutical companies (to name but two big business interests).