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Stephen Marche’s latest book is The Last Election.

The stakes of the 2024 election are the same stakes that have been at play since 2016: the survival of democracy. And for nearly a decade now, as the American political system grinds down, its institutions becoming more threadbare every year, Canada watches in amazement and horror, doing nothing.

The single most important national security issue in our history has provoked a kind of vacuous national inertia, which is natural enough: Sure it looks bad, and worse by the day, but what can we do about it? That inertia boils down in part to an early onset despair and a classic colonial lack of self-esteem and also perhaps a bit of laziness. Because there are steps Canada can take to affect the outcomes of American elections in our favour, and the time has come for us to take them. We should start buying.

The breakdown of the U.S. political system has, in an ironic twist, given us exactly the means by which we can resist the breakdown. The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United made money speech, and in the words of Anthony Kennedy, the author of the decision, “There is no such thing as too much speech.” That decision has fundamentally altered the nature of American politics far more than anyone believed at the time, and it was, it is worth noting, massively unpopular.

Recently, I wrote a political thriller, The Last Election, with former presidential and New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. It was, for me, an extraordinary education in the minutiae of political life. Early on, as Andrew and I built the plot, which involves the inner workings of an independent campaign, I asked him which were the most important days on a campaign. He answered instantly: “The first quarterly fundraising report, the second quarterly fundraising report, the third quarterly fundraising report.” As we worked through the mechanics of a campaign, there was the glamour and the horror equally present, but underlying it all was a grind: a grind for attention and money, attention to be converted into money, and money to be converted into attention. House of Cards makes politics look clever and evil, and Veep makes it look vicious and silly, but the truth is more banal. Fundraising is the actual job of American politicians today.

In 2021, Republican representative David Jolly won a special election, and immediately faced re-election. He was told by his party leadership that his first responsibility was to raise US$18,000 a day. Incoming lawmakers are encouraged to spend four hours a day raising money; it is, by far, the dominating task of their daily lives. That’s why the U.S. government is increasingly a playground for the rich, exclusively. They can just skip so many levels.

In the 2010 State of the Union, in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, Barack Obama argued that the law would allow “foreign corporations to spend without limits in our elections,” and Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the words “not true.” Justice Alito was wrong; Mr. Obama was right. We know, from cases such as that of Lev Parnas, the Soviet-born financier who was sentenced to 20 months in prison in 2022 for making illegal donations to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, that foreign governments are using these systems to influence elections. “Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Mr. Parnas claimed. But he is just the guy who got caught. Dark money is called dark for a reason. For all we know, Canada may already be using shell companies to try to influence American elections, and this column is entirely moot.

The sums involved are both ridiculously high and ridiculously low. Shell companies raised US$653-million for federal candidates in 2020, but even in the midterm year of 2022, they raised US$615-million. A United States Senate race costs, on average, US$13.5-million. A race for Congress is comparatively a bargain, at US$1.8-million.

That’s a lot of money for an individual, but next to nothing for a country. Canada is spending US$85-million on each F-35 jet, US$15-billion for the program in total. For the price of a dozen F-35s we could seriously influence virtually every political campaign in 2024. And if we were strategic, using the money at the primary level would be even more effective. The candidates who align with our national interests are anti-populist, pro-free trade Republicans and Democrats. The belief in democracy and opposition to Russian aggression would be bonuses but not necessities. It is obvious to the meanest intelligence that the survival of American democracy is more valuable to our national security and national interest than any number of F-35s.

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For those with ethical qualms, or those who think I’m kidding, I’d remind them that America has never had any moral anxiety about interfering in other countries’ elections. (See, in no particular order, the histories of Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Costa Rica, Albania, Iran, Indonesia, Greece, Chile etc.) The stakes could not be higher for us: If we are living next to a behemoth dictatorship, the question won’t be if but when we become an American satrap.

More to the point, since American politicians have made themselves for sale, we have to buy. They turned their politics into a market. We didn’t. Not only have they offered their politicians for sale, they’ve made it so that we can buy them without anybody knowing.

Another reason to start buying now is that prices aren’t going to stay this low forever. The real market value of a congressperson hasn’t been properly established, which is why it keeps rising. In 2008, winning a House seat cost US$1.1-million. Now it’s US$1.8-million. That growth is nearly as strong as Toronto real estate.

From 2024 on, we can be confident that every election will be played at these stakes. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines being goody two-shoes, especially when other governments obviously won’t. The U.S. has put itself and therefore us in this situation: Canada should play by the terms on which the game is played, or prepare for losing now.

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