By Jackie Simone
Red, white and blue crowds erupted in applause and waved signs enthusiastically. Setting a television record, more than 40 million viewers at home watched the mayhem of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions on television screens across the country. Two weeks of rhetoric, alliterative slogans and snide remarks about the opposition party culminated in the speeches where the presumptive nominees formally accepted the party nomination.
In addition to the florid language and repetitive assertions of patriotism, the candidates’ acceptance announcements shared central themes. Both Barack Obama and John McCain claimed to champion the issues of working-class citizens in their respective speeches.
“We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job; an economy that honors the dignity of work,” Obama said in Denver on Aug. 28.
McCain echoed this message in his own acceptance announcement on Sept. 4 in St. Paul, calling upon examples of families facing financial difficulties. He also asserted that he listens to the concerns of his constituents and hopes to help the average person.
“What it really means is I understand who I work for,” McCain said. “I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”
Both speeches signaled the conclusion of the national conventions. Delegates walked away from the events invigorated by the euphoric atmosphere and carrying official bags, hats and souvenirs emblazoned with corporate logos. While the candidates might have claimed to protect the interests of small businesses and the working class, the truth could not be denied: corporations were the kings of the conventions.
According to the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit institute affiliated with George Washington University, over $112 million of private money for the two conventions combined will pay for approximately 80 percent of their cost. These monetary contributions come largely from corporations, but some trade unions donate as well.
Convention city “host committee” Web sites reported that 173 companies and other organizations had donated money to federal candidates and political parties as of August 8. Since 2005, 141 corporations have donated just under $160 million in federal election contributions to the Democrats and 80 corporations have donated almost $100 million to the Republicans. Suggesting that corporate influence knows no party lines, 48 corporations donated nearly $80 million in federal election contributions to both parties. Even though many citizens consider the Democratic Party the party of the working class and the Republican Party the party of big business, the Democrats have received more funding from corporations for its convention. However, it should be noted that disclosure by convention host committees is purely voluntary, and thus either party might receive contributions in excess of the statistics. Clearly, big business interests heavily influence both parties.
“The fact that these are funded by largely, not completely, but largely big corporations mean that the presidential candidates and many people in the party feel very grateful and indebted to the contributions, which sometimes are in the millions of dollars for a company,” Stephen Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute said.
Interest groups and corporate lobbyists play a prominent role in campaigns and legislation anyways, but the Federal Election Commission has enforced limits on the amount of their contributions since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) was passed in 2002. This law was sponsored by McCain and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and is also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. According to federal law, political parties cannot accept unlimited corporate contributions. This law was passed in an effort to limit the effects of donations’ corrupting influence.
However, conventions are exempt from these regulations because they are supposed to bolster the economy of the host city and are presumably not focused on the political rewards. Therefore, corporations can still donate large amounts of money to the local committees. Despite this claim, only 37 of the 141 donors to the DNC in Denver have their headquarters in Colorado, and 31 of the 80 donors to the RNC in St. Paul are based in Minnesota. Ten of the Minnesota-based donors also donated to the DNC, showing that corporations are more concerned with gaining political influence than promoting the local economy.
Even without these staggering numbers, the influence of corporate sponsors was glaringly obvious at the DNC and RNC. For example, delegates and members of the media at the DNC were given tote bags boldly displaying the AT&T and Coca-Cola logos. The bags were made from recyclable material from Coca-Cola, which spoke to the party’s environmental stance as well as its corporate ties. Corporate logos were almost as prevalent as flag motifs. Furthermore, corporate sponsors threw lavish private parties for the politicians gathered at the conventions.
The influence of corporate sponsorship at these events might lead to political conflicts of interests as parties claim to fight against corruption in big businesses. The convention committees are not required to disclose a list of donors until 60 days after the convention. Due to the proximity of this date to Election Day, voters have hardly any time to question the candidates about their party’s relationship with the corporate sponsors.
Some corporate sponsors have already been named. Additionally, some corporations were blatant in their contributions to the conventions, as delegates became walking billboards and corporations openly funded special events.
Massie Ritsch, Communications Director for the Center for Responsive Politics, attended both conventions this year and commented that corporate influence was visible everywhere. He recalled that delegates at both conventions were given “bags of swag,” filled with free gifts from corporations. There were US Bank logos on water bottles, Traveler’s Insurance umbrellas in St. Paul, UPS breath mints in containers shaped like brown trucks, AT&T pins, and wildflower seeds provided by an energy company.
“Corporations also host parties at these events, which are separate from the convention and are not official convention events usually, but that’s how many of the delegates and especially delegates who are lawmakers get fed most of the week,” Ritsch said.
Several of the most prominent corporate sponsors have recently been involved in controversies and questionable business practices. Politicians might find it difficult to discipline the same corporations that are funding their conventions. AT&T, which so generously gave DNC delegates the tote bags, has been at the center of numerous controversies. In July, AT&T and other telecoms were granted retroactive immunity for spying on U.S. citizens through their illegal participation in the Bush administration’s wiretapping program. During the DNC, AT&T hosted a lavish private party for the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats. These corporations seemed to be thanking the politicians for not punishing them for their illegal invasion of citizens’ privacy.
Corporate sponsorship of conventions has been controversial for decades. In 1971, the Justice Department under the Nixon administration settled an anti-trust case against the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. on favorable terms after the corporation pledged up to $400,000 for the 1972 RNC in San Diego. This scandal spurred some debate and calls for reforms, but the campaign finance laws remain flawed.
“It was a serious intention of every reformer in the 1970s in writing these laws to bar corporate participation in national conventions,” said Bill Allison, senior fellow of the Sunlight Foundation. “What they’ve found is all kinds of back door ways and undisclosed ways to host events around the conventions and basically just provide money for the conventions, which kind of makes a mockery of those reforms.”
The conventions are gatherings of some of the most influential politicians in the federal and state legislatures. Amy Goodman, the host of “Democracy Now!” who was arrested at the RNC, discussed the strategy behind corporate sponsorship of conventions in her July 23 article “Who’s Paying for the Conventions?” for Truthdig.com.
“Many state legislators attend the conventions as delegates, where they marinate in the ways of big-money politics,,” Goodman wrote. “From the corporate parties to the hospitality suites, they learn that there is nothing to be gained by challenging the status quo.”
The results of the large donations from corporations could be seen throughout the conventions. With Election Day on the horizon, the voting population already knew that Obama and McCain would be named their respective party’s nominees. The conventions are mainly for show, not tell; instead of making solid statements about their stance on the issues and discussing substantive, new information, those delivering speeches employedrhetoric and vague promises of a better tomorrow. Recent conventions are analogous to high school pep rallies, where the supporters of a team or party walk away with smiles but not much necessary information. Given the superficiality of modern conventions, it seems bizarre that corporations would pour millions of dollars into these events. The corporate sponsors paid for expensive podiums, skyboxes, and elaborate production teams. Corporate contributions to conventions are yet another example of frivolous spending in the United States.
In addition to corporate and private funds, each convention will be subsidized with $16.4 million in taxpayer dollars from a voluntary check-off on income tax returns. The Campaign Finance Institute and other groups believe that all unlimited contributions should be abolished and that parties should only use these voluntary taxpayer donations to fund the conventions. They predict that if this were the case, corporate influence and excessive fanfare would be lessened and people would take conventions more seriously.
Obama and McCain will both claim to look out for your best interests as a citizen, but when it comes down to it, corporations give them more incentive to vote a certain way than the average citizen ever could. As Election Day approaches, Americans must ask themselves, what is the price tag of democracy?
Jackie Simone is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.