Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Money Politics and Vote-Buying

Written by johnleemk on 9:13:59 am Apr 2, 2007.

One of my few hobbies is following American politics. Not too long ago, the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 released their fundraising numbers for the past quarter.

These numbers are staggering. Combined, the three front-runners alone probably have amassed over $50 million — to say nothing of the other minor candidates, or the Republican ones. The amounts of money involved in modern American politics are truly gigantic.

This is a troubling development, however. The fundamental premise of democracy is that the man who has the most support wins — but little to no account is made for the fact that support can be bought. In developed democracies, it is of course taboo to buy votes directly — but nobody thinks twice about political advertising, which is basically indirect vote-buying. Pork-barrel politics are also a form of indirect vote-buying which many politicians are fond of.

Furthermore, in most democracies, the votes of legislators aren't too hard to buy. If you need someone to support a new law that would benefit you, simply just "donate" a few million dollars to her campaign chest. Everybody wins, except the electorate.

By making politicians so susceptible to such undue influence, modern politics has stripped out much of the original tenets of democracy. Voters are supposed to make an informed and independent choice, but can this truly be so when they are just as likely to make such a choice as they are to vote for the guy who spends $1 million airing an advertisement promising to bring home $50 million worth of development projects, such as a bridge to nowhere, for the community?

It is of course true that advertising does inform. But at some point, it stops informing and becomes useless puffery, such as branding, which adds no real value. Unfortunately, drawing the line between information and useless puffery in an objective manner is all but impossible.

The huge barriers to entry that money politics poses are formidable. Gone are the days when if you had the talent and ideas to be a leader, you could slowly build momentum and eventually win the election (as Jimmy Carter did in 1976). Nowadays, you need to have a few million in the campaign chest to ensure your campaign will last more than a few months, and even then, you'd better start raking in the big bucks quickly. A budget of $5 million isn't good enough to win the nomination of a major party.

Obviously, these problems afflict other countries besides America, although not always to a similar extent. In many Commonwealth countries, the strength of party politics (whereby the party funds candidates) and also the Westminster system (which precludes large-scale campaigning because there are few, if any, nationwide offices) have managed to curtail the impact of money politics.

Still, money remains an immense barrier to participation in the political process. In many countries, candidates are unable to come up with the deposits necessary to contest an election, let alone fund a whole campaign. Even major parties often have to scrounge for funds. This is especially true in less-developed democracies such as Malaysia.

What possible solutions are there to the seepage of money into electoral politics? The American solution has been to dilute the power of vote-buying through partial public funding of campaigns, and to reduce the tendency to buy influence through "donations" by mandating transparency in the accounts of parties and campaigns.

Whether this has truly been effective is questionable. Although parties and candidates do release the names of people who donate to them, this information often just flies over the heads of voters. Few in the first place know that company so-and-so gave $5 million to this candidate, or to that candidate.

Public funding, at least in America, has turned out to be impractical because of the limited feasibility of taxing people to fund politics, and also because of the huger and huger amounts of money needed to run for a major office. Many major candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination have rejected public funding altogether, freeing themselves of the limitations imposed on their political activity by accepting taxpayer money to run their campaigns.

I think there are a few ways we could go further in public funding would be quite practical. For example, the requirement of an election deposit could be waived for incumbent candidates, and candidates who can, say, present a petition from a certain number of voters in their constituency supporting their candidacy. Some public funding should also be given to parties after each election, and allocated according to the proportion of seats they win.

These, of course, do not resolve the problem of funding immense national-scale campaigns. Nevertheless, I do not think it is a huge problem, since career politicians often build war chests and connections while working at the lower levels of politics. The more troubling issue is that business interests often have a huge hand in amassing these war chests.

The obvious solution, I think, is to ban corporations from contributing to campaigns. This is actually very sensible since they don't have the right to vote in the first place, so why should they have the right to participate in the political process at all?

The problem then is that the individuals who own these corporations will be the ones lobbying candidates and throwing money at them. One solution, at least in the US, has been to limit the amount that can be donated by any one individual to a candidate. This seems reasonable, but still strikes me as unfair, since there can be valid reasons for donating huge amounts to a campaign. If I want to spend my money that way, why should I be kept from doing so by the law? In any case, it only creates a cottage industry for lawyers who can devise clever ways for people to discreetly funnel money.

The modern political process obviously needs reform in some way. I'm not sure about what exact policies could be implemented to put back the democracy in the democratic process, but it seems totally senseless to not have some simple measures in place. Corporations have no role to play in the political process, and there seems no reason why political parties should not be rewarded in pecuniary form for winning the support of the electorate. These simple reforms should be enacted in any country that wants to be a true democracy.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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