Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Full Disclosure

By Shawn Healy
The Campaign Finance Institute issued a press release yesterday with their latest findings on the fundraising results of the just-completed presidential campaign. In it, they shatter the myth that President-elect Barack Obama used small donations as the fuel for his improbable run to the White House. Through tabulating donors listed on financial disclosure forms, the Institute found that many of the so-called small donors ($200 or less) gave money to Obama more than once, eclipsing this sum and thus removing themselves from this category. Upon aggregation, the percentage of small donors who contributed to the current President-elect barely eclipsed that of President George Bush in 2004 (26% to 25%), and wasn't all that different than Senator John McCain's (21%).

Obama's haul was nonetheless impressive, but this seemingly undermines his rationale for refusing public funding for the general election phase of the campaign. He argued that his small donor base was the virtual equivalent of public funding. Admittedly, campaign finance reform is probably low on the incoming president's priority list, but Obama has repeatedly committed to fixing the campaign finance system, seeking a greater role for public matching funds and potentially free mandated broadcast time on television and radio.

He proved a prolific fundraiser, adeptly using the Internet to bring in a steady cash flow that bankrolled his multistate organization that flooded the airwaves and went door-to-door to dramatically alter the complexion of the electoral map. McCain simply couldn't compete as he chose to accept federal matching money and was restricted to the $84 million allotment during the final two months of the campaign. It begs to question why the President-elect would tamper with a system that served him so well.

Perhaps reform in the Obama Administration will take the form of full disclosure with restrictions on giving from registered lobbyists. This is essentially the system his campaign pursued, although it sometimes delayed disclosure of bundlers (fundraisers who raise large combined sums of money for a single candidate). McCain was guilty on this count, too. Full disclosure might also include those who give less than $200, as there exists some concerns about the authenticity and even the citizenship of these donors.

The existing system is a product of the post-Watergate era, where individuals are limited in the amount of money they can donate in a given cycle to a specific candidate (currently $2,300 each for the primary and general election campaigns). Individuals may give to political parties in larger sums, and McCain used coordinated expenditures with the Republican National Committee to stay above water when competing against the Obama juggernaut. McCain's own campaign finance reform legislation has crumbled slowly as the Supreme Court has limited its restrictions on issue ads and the so-called Millionaire's amendment that raised the the individual donation bar if a self-financed challenger spent significant sums of his own money (Obama benefited from this in his initial Senate campaign).

Some experts have concluded that the paradigm that places public financing at one end of the spectrum, and First Amendment free speech protests of any restrictions at the other is tired and should be discarded. They argue that the Internet has forever transformed the campaign finance landscape, introducing small donors to the scene and squashing fears that big-money interests dominate our national politics. By maintaining sensible limitations on individual donations and insisting on full and immediate disclosure, the existing apparatus is not so much broken but merely in need of "seasonal maintenance."

Given the gravity of the current economic crisis, the way in which we finance our campaigns is but a footnote to the pressing agenda of the President-elect. Before long, however, our campaign finance laws should endure their "periodic checkup," and a clean bill of health will come with at minimum minor tweaks to the system. Transparency in government and campaigns is critical to maintaining the public's trust in our leaders and the system they preside over. President Obama should use his credibility in the area of campaign finance to make our laws relevant in the 21st Century.

For more information on this issue, I encourage you to read two recent conference reports generated by the McCormick Foundation. The first, Civic Disengagement in our Democracy, views the financing of campaigns within the context of five issues that reduce civic participation by our general populace. The second, Freedom of Speech and the Press in the Information Age, presents the First Amendment free speech concerns of restrictions on political donations alongside what many consider the best interests of democracy. It is followed by a lesson plan for high school students that introduces them to key concepts and terms related to campaign finance, and then asks them to explore the implications of financial donations solicited by elected officials.


Our Fading Heritage

By Shawn Healy
Last week, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a third study on the state of civics knowledge in our nation. Titled Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions, the report adds to a growing chorus on concern about civic illiteracy and its implications for democratic governance. The Institute created a 33-question quiz (you can take it here) to a broad swath of the populace, and as can be detected from the title, the results were dismal.

71% of respondents failed the test, with an average score of 49%. Among the questions that tripped up a majority who completed the survey was a request to name the three branches of the federal government. Given broad public financial support for our nation's colleges and universities, and higher levels of attendance than at any time in our nation's history, it goes without saying that we should expect higher levels of civic knowledge among our college graduates. This is confirmed, but the average score is only 57%, or 13% higher than those who ended their education with a high school diploma.

Higher scores were attained by those who read actively, including current events in newspapers, engage in conversations with peers and family members about civic matters, and participate in civic activities beyond voting (for example, volunteering on a campaign). Those who use the Internet as a source of news and to engage in social networking also posted higher scores. Passive activities like talking on the phone, watching television (even news), and renting movies all detract from civic knowledge.

Also alarming were the low scores registered by survey respondents who have held elected office. These scores were 5% lower than those of the general population. This is either an instance of the blind leading the blind, or flawed survey methodology (the report makes no specific reference to who these officeholders are).

One can make a case that multiple choice tests are poor measures of civic knowledge, that they distract from more meaningful repositories of information essential to engaged citizenship. True, these releases make great column and blog fodder, but they also admirably direct the public's attention toward glaring deficiencies. They force us to answer difficult questions like why we should continue to subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars annually when these institutions fail to impart even a basic level of civic literacy upon their students.

In order to perform our roles as citizens, we do need a common understanding of the institutions we must interact with to hold our leaders accountable. The most likely source of this information remains our nation's schools, but other entities are ready and willing to lend a hand, including the Campaign for the Civic Mission in Schools (the Freedom Museum is a member of the Illinois coalition). At a time of great civic interest on the heels of a historic election and in the midst of a consequential transition of power, the clarion bell must sound sharp calls to bottle this enthusiasm and harness it to champion our schools' civic mission.


Living and Learning with New Media

By Shawn Healy
The MacArthur Foundation recently published an eye-opening report titled Living and Learning with New Media, a product of their Digital Youth Project. While there is no shortage of reports summarizing the numerical trends toward new media among our youth, this report is unique in its qualitative look at youth engagement with the digital world.

The authors conclude that young people nowadays are "always on," connecting with friends via text messaging, instant messaging, mobile phones and the Internet. New media presents channels for "hanging out" in a virtual sense and allows friendships to move forward. By "geeking out," young people pursue domain specific information and become experts in their own right, therefore transcending "traditional makers of status and authority." Along the way, they acquire useful social and technological skills necessary to participate in today's society.

At the same time, a new form of "digital divide" has appeared, this one the disjuncture between restricted technological use in the classroom or library and its more liberated manifestations beyond the schoolhouse gate. Social networking is seen by many teachers and parents as a "waste of time" and therefore employ considerable restrictions, but some teens have identified "work-arounds" to circumvent these barriers.

Despite concerns about online predators, teens tend to associate with friends from school, summer camp, athletics, or church. Adult participation in these channels is considered "awkward" and "creepy."

Trial and error is rewarded through new media outlets, with low levels of investments and few consequences in the case of failure. Labeled by the authors as "messing around," it is seen as a transitional phase between "hanging out" and "interest-driven" participation.

The authors conclude that the digital age has provided opportunities that go beyond information-seeking, but also involve social and recreational opportunities. When youth are stifled in this capacity, they are locked out of a common culture and means of socialization. Restrictions are considered "blunt instruments" and perceived by youth as "raw and ill-informed exercises of power."


Land of Obama?

By Shawn Healy
The parallels between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln are striking, and the President-elect is well aware of the similarities. Indeed, he has gone to great lengths to embrace them, beginning with launching his presidential campaign from the Old Statehouse steps in Springfield, and returning there once more to name Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. More recently, he is allegedly pondering Lincoln's "team of rivals" concept in forming his Cabinet, vetting fierce primary opponent Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book by the same name.

The burden of expectations is indeed high, but at least the Union is not on the brink of collapse. Obama inherits a staggering economy and a fragile national security environment with our troops taxed in separate overseas conflicts. Add environmental and health care concerns to the mix, and the duties that our 44th president must perform rival that of at least Reagan, if not Franklin Roosevelt.

Will this previously little-known lawyer from Illinois with a knack for stirring speeches and eloquence stand as the second coming of the giant whom the Prairie State and the nation is about to fondly reminisce on the 200th anniversary of his birth? 2009 promises to be a year of honoring the past and at the same time embracing the present, for America will have its first African-American president, a path paved by our 16th president's Emancipation Proclamation and belief in a "new birth of freedom" through the brutal Civil War.

The Land of Lincoln is now the home to another president who will make history. Come January 20th, the shackles of the past give way to the urgency of the present. Judgment will follow, assuredly both positive and negative, as Obama joins a lineage who called the Prairie State home. The bar has been placed exceedingly high, and it is up to our president-elect to aspire to share space in the lofty echelons occupied by the Great Emancipator.


Freedom of Speech and the Press in the Information Age

By Shawn Healy
I was pleased to present the Freedom Museum's latest conference report at separate conferences devoted to social studies teachers the past two weeks. Titled Freedom of Speech and the Press in the Information Age, the report tackles four First Amendment issues with Digital Age implications: press challenges in the Internet era, the potential revival of the Fairness Doctrine, the tenuous relationship between the military and the media during wartime, and campaign finance reform. Each are addressed in chapter-length features, and are followed by lesson plans designed for high school-age students.

The report is an outgrowth of a conference we hosted last summer in partnership with the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation. Staged at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, we convened more than 130 social studies teachers from across the country to tackle these emerging topics alongside a team of content experts ranging from American University's Jane Hall to NBC's Pete Williams to Thomas Mann of the Brooking Institution. The featured speakers addressed the selected issues from diverse viewpoints and entertained the questions of the teachers in attendance. The teachers, in turn, brainstormed lesson plan ideas, and these lie at the heart of the lesson plans embedded in the report.

On November 7, I presented this report and associated lessons to local teachers at the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago's annual state conference, and again last Saturday at the National Council for the Social Studies' national conference in Houston. Additionally, a handful of James Madison Fellows introduced the same lessons in a poster session conducted at the same conference. Our initial response to the compilation has been remarkably positive. Teachers from across the country have promised to use these lessons in their classroom this year and found the content a perfect match for their heavily "wired" students.

If you are interested in reading the report or using the lessons, please click here to download the document. Also, feel free to contact me should you desire a hard copy of the report, as we will happily send one your way. Finally, we are hosting a free teacher seminar on site on Tuesday December 2 where I will address the Digital Age challenges to a free press and the Fairness Doctrine in more detail. I will be joined by Vivian Vahlberg of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University who will review her August 2008 report From 'Too Much' to 'Just Right': Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web that I previously reviewed on this blog. Additionally, Tom Bevan, the co-founder of Real Clear Politics, will offer his insights on the future of media coverage of politics. To find out more about the seminar or to register, please click here.


Changing of the Guard

By Shawn Healy
The 2008 presidential election cycle was certainly one for the record books. Twenty-three months of campaigning produced the first African-American president in history, and potentially altered the electoral landscape for decades to come. President-elect Barack Obama prevailed in an Electoral College landslide, 365-173, capturing all of the swing states but one (Missouri), and turning a handful of traditional red states (Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina) blue. His popular vote margin was smaller (6.3%), yet convincing, and he assumes office on January 20, 2009, with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. For all intents and purposes, Obama can claim a mandate for change.

Obama's victory cast a wide net across most demographic groups, and even in those he lost, he made up ground when compared to the 2004 Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry. He bested Senator John McCain among women by 13%, and lost the male vote by a mere 1%. Younger voters flocked to Obama in droves, as he prevailed by 34% among those 18-29, and by 6% in the 30-44 year age bracket. The candidates split the 45-59 cohort, and McCain won the votes of those over 60 by 4%. Racial breakdowns are even more dramatic, as Obama won the African-American vote by 91%, the Latino vote by 36%, and the Asian-American vote by 27%. McCain won the white vote by 14%, but this represented only 74% of the electorate, the smallest share in history.

Obama beat McCain in both cites and suburbs, with the Arizona senator winning only small towns and rural areas. As expected, liberals and conservatives flocked to their respective candidates in crooked numbers, but moderates and independents tracked to Obama by 21% and 8% margins. Jewish and Catholic voters sided with Obama, and Protestants with McCain. The so-called "God gap" resurfaced as those who attend church once or more per week sided with McCain by 12%.

From a regional perspective, Obama claimed the Northeast, the Midwest (with the exception of Missouri), and the West Coast, making heavy inroads in the Mountain West. McCain held the South and the Great Plains. Some Republicans fear that this election represents a realignment, with the GOP gradually becoming more of a regional, rural party. Such declarations are premature at this juncture given the perfect storm from which Obama was able to operate. The economy is in shambles, the nation is fighting two unpopular wars, and the incumbent president is the most unpopular since such polls have been conducted.

Credit must also be bestowed upon the campaign that Obama orchestrated. The Illinois senator drew young people into the political process like never before and accomplished what many African-Americans only envisioned in dreams. He articulated a message of change that resonated with the populace, and used the Internet to mobilize supporters and serve as the locus for unprecedented sums of campaign cash that he employed to finance a devastating commercial campaign and get-out-the-vote operations from one coast to the other.

President-elect Obama now must face challenges arguably steeper than at any juncture since the Great Depression. He will oversee the $700 billion financial rescue package passed by Congress this fall and also initiate a second stimulus package. Health care reform is also on the immediate horizon, along with calls for the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. He has promised to end the war in Iraq and redeploy these troops to Afghanistan. At the same time, he must manipulate the levers of diplomacy to address nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, genocide in Darfur, and a civil war raging in the Congo.

As Americans, we wish President-elect Obama well, for regardless of our party stripes, we cannot afford for him to fail. The peaceful transition between a Republican to a Democratic presidential administration is a sign that our system of democracy works. Soon enough, partisans will gear up for the midterm elections in 2010, and before long, candidates will trek once more to Iowa and New Hampshire for a shot at knocking off the incumbent president in 2012. The political world moves on and so do we as citizens, but the experiences of the 2008 election are worthy of triumphant and bittersweet reflection. Simply stated, we are a better nation for the trials and tribulations of the last 23 months.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at