According to the Wall Street Journal, President Obama is considering soliciting corporate donors to help pay for his 2013 inauguration festivities. This would mark a significant departure from his insistence in 2008 that he eschew corporate contributions in order to symbolically showcase his political independence from monied interests.
The operative word here is “symbolically” since this grand gesture never amounted to much substantive sense. In 2008, a wilderness of corporations donated piles of money to a campaign that turned its nose up at public financing, after gaudily singing hymns of praise about its indispensability to democratic virtue. Were we to believe that Obama avoided indebtedness to them because they didn’t foot the bill for cake and streamers? Is he immune to corporate influence because some other interest paid for plastic flatware and finger food? And if that counts as evidence of his incorruptibility, why is he passing the proverbial hat around to them now?
The answer lies in the obsession the Democrat party has with the ostentatious show and tell of political symbolism. After the Supreme Court upheld the right of both corporations and unions to make independent political expenditures in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 2010, President Obama lamented the slow suicide of American democracy in terms worthy of Wagnerian drama: it “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” This was not only constitutionally absurd–the decision had nothing to do with foreign corporations and left unrevised the strictures on direct campaign contributions–it never produced any crashing cataract of Wall Street spending on either candidate.
Why is this the case? Because for all the shrill grandstanding about the corporate sullying of genuine democratic representation, their contributions make little difference in most electoral cycles. Corporations are often reluctant to make significant donations to a candidate for fear of alienating customers, investors, and clients who might not share their political views. Also, despite the hackneyed caricature of the infamously incestuous relationship between big business and the GOP, corporation donations generally split evenly across party lines, neutralizing the potential for a meaningfully disparate impact.
In other words, whatever strain is placed on the democratic legitimacy of our elections by the hefty weight of campaign finance, corporations are not the primary culprit. However, Obama never points out that Citizens United also untethered union spending as well which does disproportionately sway election outcomes not only because it often outstrips corporate largesse, but because almost all of it finds its way into Democratic coffers.
Incidentally, unions did actually pay for much of Obama’s lavish 2008 coronation: does this mean he is politically indebted to them for their generosity? Yes, it does, in fact. But this patronage doesn’t count as undue political influence because it can’t be neatly nestled into Stalin-era rhetoric about the ferocious unfairness of capitalism and its robber baron advocates. And the quid pro quo between the Democratic party and unions really does undermine the integrity of our elections since their financial support is so often recompensed with taxpayer dollars, an unseemly collusion of labor lobbyists and politicians against the common citizen.
And while the liberal infatuation with “identity” politics is conventionally attributed to multiculturalist ideology, it’s effectively demanded by their attachment to incessantly aggrandized federal power. The growth of the state is marketed by liberals to each sliver of their constituency as the growth of each group’s collective welfare, making the infinite balkanization of the citizenry a political necessity. This is why Obama’s entire campaign strategy was to negatively depict Republicans as engaged in a war on this or that subgroup.There no longer are any overarching ideas that inspire them.
The problem with the Democratic preoccupation with symbolism, or their preference for doctrinal purity over practical policy, is that it’s no longer clear what doctrinal principles they stand for besides the infinite enlargement of government. One case in point: Liberalism today is reflexively enthralled by statism, despite its coming repudiation by the demographic future anyone can see just around the bend. Despite the daily specter of Europe rehearsing our fate in advance of us, drowning in big government commitments it hasn’t the funds to finance or the will to reform, Democrats press on undaunted, trading the nation’s solvency for their self-conscious shows of superiority. It seems to be a great consolation that they will drown in debt thinking well of themselves.
But the flashy advertisement of virtue is not the same as being virtuous. Running low on cash and abandoned by weary donors after a spectacularly expensive campaign, Obama will throw a sybarite affair underwritten by purportedly dirty corporate funds. It would be tempting to brand Obama a hypocrite for his grand reversal of principle, if he did, indeed, have any real principles to betray.
Ivan Kenneally is Editor in Chief of the Daily Witness.