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Monday, July 16, 2007

Politics 101: Follow the money

As you've probably guessed from reading past posts, my politics lean more toward the Democrats than Republicans on most issues. That is not to say, however, that I'm more than a tepid supporter of the Democratic party leadership. I certainly find fault with it on many things, especially its lack of courage and vision, and its failure to address the real needs of those it claims to represent. Too often they tell us what they are not, rather than what they are.

I mention this because the election campaign is starting to heat up, and five of the Dems hit my hometown today for a trial lawyers conference. If you listen to the speeches coming at you over the next few months leading up to the primaries, you'll hear each of the Democratic front-runners posturing to be the candidate of the "little guy." They'll take public positions that may on some level appear to back up that claim, but our challenge as voters will be to try to get past the rhetoric and determine whom, if any, we can trust to deliver on the many promises made.

In comparison to the past 8 years of abuse under George W, it will be tempting to latch on to any shred of hope we can get. It'll also become tempting for many to wax nostalgic over the Bill Clinton years, and gloss over the failings of the man who shifted his party pretty far to the right. One mantra you'll hear from Democratic leaders is that we should first worry about electing more Dems, and then worry about electing progressive dems. That kind of compromise is exactly what's gotten us into our current mess. Making few demands of your party in return for your vote is a foolish way to engage in politics.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind as the race unfolds:

1. Until we make the election about ideas and vision, rather than money and slick advertising, we'll always end up with politicians whose loyalties are first and foremost to their biggest donors. Already, the media's litmus test for legitimacy has become the amount of dollars raised (see the Washington Post story Obama, Clinton Have $30 Million-Plus as one example). Those unable to pull in big sums soon get marginalized, and no matter how worthwhile their positions on the issues, they quickly drop away. It's already begun, as two of the candidates were not invited to today's Chicago event. This makes it almost impossible for any truly grassroots movement to gain traction in electoral politics.

2. Money will corrupt the process, no matter who is giving it. The Bushies attained the White House with the strong support of Oil and Coal, and we've paid the price with bad environmental law and a resource-consuming war. The Democrats' money may come from different sources (although not completely, as some corporations like to play both sides), but that may just mean a whole new set of problems. Pay attention to the groups the candidates bow down before, and you'll get a better understanding of the impetus behind their policies. The Chicago Sun Times has a good piece on the ties between the Dems and Trial Lawyers (see Dem hopefuls come courting).

3. Our duties don't end on election day. True democracy isn't about just voting every 4 years; it's about holding our representatives accountable every day of the year. Of course that will require non-stop education and participation, but no one said democracy would come easy.
As a first step toward achieving that priceless democracy we all want and deserve, arm yourself with knowledge by taking a look at the OpenSecrets.org website. It's a great resource for tracking the forces behind the politicians and understanding why our reps do the things they do. You can even keep track of who's raised what and from whom in the current election cycle. See, Race for The Whitehouse: Banking on Being President.
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