I was in El Salvador recently, and the talk was all about elections—ours and theirs. They were preparing for across-the-board voting, from the president down through legislative and municipal offices, the kind of potential housecleaning that comes along only once every 15 years.
And at the same time, Salvadorans were marveling at what had just happened here: An African American elected president for the first time in US history. On the wall in an emergency shelter near the frequently flooded Rio Lempa someone had tacked a photo, torn from a magazine, of a beaming Barack Obama, a symbol of the power of democracy and all its possibilities.
But I’m wondering now what Salvadorans—and others around the world struggling for their voices to be heard and their interests to be fairly represented—will think when they learn what the cost of that historic vote was. The New York Times reported last week that the Obama campaign raised a record $750 million. That’s three-quarters of a billion dollars, much of it raised on-line in small increments from voters hungry for change and energized by the idea that with the click of a mouse they could make a difference.
How much money is that? It’s about $100 million more than the entire gross domestic product for Gambia, which was $640 million in 2007, according to the World Bank. El Salvador’s GDP last year was $20.2 billion. Ethiopia’s was $19.39 billion. And Haiti’s was $6.41 billion.
John McCain’s campaign raised $345.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission’s Web site. Add the two together and you begin to get a picture of the true cost of democracy in a country where people are more inclined to believe a sound bite than bother with the details—true or not—behind it.
Here in the US we talk a lot about exporting democracy and the value that will bring to the world. But what’s the truth behind all that preaching? To really be heard, you’ve got to buy a voice—and have astronomical sums to do it. Is that democracy? And is that the model we really want to export?