A dollar for democracy

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We know that times are indeed strange when a senator starts receiving the kind of welcome you’d expect for rock stars. But last week, that’s exactly what Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) found when he came to Minnesota for the first time since announcing his candidacy for the White House in 2008. At a fundraiser at International Market Square, a crowd of 3,000 – by all accounts young, diverse and perplexingly optimistic given the state of our country – gave him a hearty welcome to the state.

With these greetings, Sen. Obama has also been receiving small donations, many times under $25, that in a peculiar way reaffirm our faith in the body politic. From April to June, Sen. Obama raised $32 million, more than any other candidate, from the more than 250,000 people who have donated to his campaign since he entered the race six months ago. The sheer number of people donating to his campaign is turning heads even among most jaded money analysts in Washington. Whether these small donors are flocking to Sen. Obama because of the appalling Bush presidency, or because they feel that he is the messianic chosen-one who will bring order to the force, what we’re now seeing is a system working much closer to the way it should.

The vast majority of political contributions come from corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individual donors who can donate up to $1,000 to a candidate and $20,000 to a political party’s national committee. When these interests elect a candidate, it isn’t hard to see how, once elected, the politician might feel beholden to his rich friends who helped put him there, rather than the common good. Sen. Obama is taking the big donations from the rich and powerful, but the massive number of everyday folks lining up to support him is an encouraging trend, and we hope it will catch on, because it will make our representative democracy more representative and more democratic.

The Supreme Court views political contributions as the same as political speech, and as long as this remains the case, our political system will always be skewed in favor of those with the most money and thus, the most speech. But people making small donations helps counteract this, and gives them a voice in a process that is usually the domain of only a select few. Sen. Obama still has questions to answer about whether he is prepared for the job he’s after, but if the interest he provokes keeps spreading like wildfire, then dollar by dollar, the money he brings in will indeed talk.