Last night, I donated three dollars to the Barack Obama campaign. I didn’t do it because I believe in the transformative potential of a second term for the current president, or because I expect good things to come of an emphasis on small-donor contributions to political causes. I didn’t even do it because I can afford it, because there’s some legitimate doubt about that, even at the three dollar level.
In fact, my donation wasn’t in answer to my conscience; it was in violation of it. And given what three dollars might otherwise have bought, it was an irrational violation of my conscience. That is characteristic of playing the lottery. Yes, I donated three dollars to the Barack Obama campaign last night because that was the minimum amount and the deadline that allowed donors to be entered for a chance to win a trip to Los Angeles to have dinner with Barack Obama and George Clooney.
I put off the donation all the way to the last half-hour before the FEC fundraising deadline, because this involved a complex economic and ethical calculation for me. It took until after 11:30 to hit that breaking point, but ultimately, I decided that even in the faces of virtually infinitesimal chances and the certainty of being left with a bad taste in my mouth, three dollars was well-worth the long shot of being chosen to be able to have a conversation with the president. (I wouldn’t really care about meeting Clooney – I’d shake his hand and tell him I admire his body of work, but I want to talk to policymakers.)
The economic calculation was significantly influenced by what I know about the president. The current occupant of the highest office in the land has an admirable sense of empathy, to the extent that he has been responsible for some instances of helping private citizens to get jobs when they had spoken to him of their difficulties. He has also been known to occasionally write personal checks in response to letters detailing hardships which the president felt he had no other way of addressing in the moment.
I wrote about those facts in the past, and though they still impress me with regards to the kind of man that citizen Barack Obama is, as I expressed then, I don’t like what it says about him as an occupant of the presidential office. And to be perfectly frank about my own motivations, I want to have dinner with President Barack Obama so I can exploit the ear of the man and criticize the actions and policies of the president.
Donating money to his campaign for the sake of a shot at dinner in L.A. constituted an ethical compromise for me, because I recognized that I was contributing to an unfortunate trend in American politics. We complain a great deal about the influence of big money in campaigns and policy making, the quid pro quo involved. But as with everything else, the broader tendencies, the impulses among the powerful, have their groundwork in private, on-the-ground attitudes.
Regardless of whether it relies on three dollar donations from across the country or one terrifyingly wealthy Super PAC, no campaign and no political apparatus should be set up to encourage people to contribute their resources to it in hopes that they will be delivered some personal reward in return. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.
I didn’t donate my three dollars to the Barack Obama campaign because I believe that he represents my views and can be trusted to carry out the policies that I think would be legitimately best for the country as a whole; I did it in hopes of gaining access to the president so that I could try to influence his policies. And more than that, I gave my money to the campaign in the interest of trying to influence a private individual to help me personally.
I want to have dinner with the president so that I can raise questions about his education policy, about the flawed common wisdom that government cannot create jobs, and about the victim-blaming rhetoric that dominates political explanations of joblessness, poverty, and loss. But I want to have dinner with a man with a vast network of high-level connections so that I can impress upon him the desperation of my need for a decent job, the reality of my qualifications and talents, and the fact that nothing I do on my own can connect those thing to actual employment.
I know that there have been a handful of other people who have been in similar situations, found themselves in circumstances that allowed them to bend the ear of the president, and acquired job leads by virtue of his influence. I think it’s wrong that anyone gets that chance, but the fact is that so long as someone does, I hope it’s me.
For the time being, money in politics is a reality that we have to work with. But the money should follow the political causes, and the system that is accepted now by both parties and at all levels encourages money to precede politics and to demand that weakly malleable views on policy answer to purchased influence. I doubt, though, that my three dollars will buy sufficient influence to demand that that system be questioned.