Everyone I talk to is exhausted by the prospect of seven more months of presidential campaigning, American-style. But many people are also resigned: this is the system, it always has been, what can you do about it?
The culture of politics says a great deal about a country. (You can read more on this subject in my essay in New Village Commons’ “Festival of Democracy” issue.) If a Martian were to land in the midst of any recent U.S. presidential campaign, what could he/she/it deduce from our system? That we believe wise leaders emerge from a strange type of ritual combat: the death of a thousand cuts combined with a race to collect the biggest pot of gold.
As the great spiritual teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, “If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.” Well, we have definitely harmed democracy with various hedges and “improvements” to our campaign system, which has changed a great deal since the nation’s founding.
Technology has produced some changes, shifting the venue for campaign rhetoric from speeches off the back of a train to millions of TV screens, abandoning flesh-pressing in favor of virtual handshakes (I get several notes each day from the Obama campaign, which I support, always addressing me by my first name even though we haven’t been properly introduced). Raw competition between states has created some of the most recent and annoying changes, the scramble to move primaries up so as to influence the outcome; this year, that bright idea backfired, further attenuating the long middle of the campaign season into the silly shape of a snake with two heads, one at each end.
So how can we heal the system? I don’t have room to count all the ways, but here are a few ideas worth considering. As you think them over, remember that the system gets tweaked all the time, but usually for the benefit of entrenched interests. All that is lacking to tweak it to democratic purpose is your belief in that possibility.
Financing: Barack Obama’s campaign today announced that $40 million had been raised in March, bringing the total of his donors to an astounding 1.3 million souls. Within the rules of the game as it is played, this is thrilling news. Compared to the Clinton campaign’s $20 million total in the same period, and her smaller number of donors, it even highlights the grassroots nature of Obama’s campaign, the good news that his candidacy has continued to activate citizens previously disillusioned with electoral politics.
But asking who benefits from this massing of money also reveals how our electoral system has become a boon for the advertising industry. Can you think of a better use for the $234 million Obama had raised and the $176 million Clinton had raised by the end of last month? By the time the primaries are over, more than half a billion dollars will have been raised to promote just these two candidates (and that doesn’t even count funds raised through other entities for the purpose of supporting them)—and then it starts all over again in the general election.
In 2007, U.S. advertising revenues totaled $149 billion. (This was considered disappointing news, by the way, a sign of stagnant growth.) This is the cost of placing ads only. It does not include the monumental investment advertisers make in creating print, television, radio, Internet and other advertisements. Political advertising is just a small fraction of the total, but it grows with every election: when you consider the billions spent in advertising for all local, state and national campaigns, it really starts to add up.
Many of the people who run newspapers, TV and radio stations and Web sites are thrilled with our present system, a cash cow that delivers more milk each year. But for the rest of us, the thought of wasting all that money on a capital-intensive, nonproductive, avaricious and deceptive industry like advertising may curdle our stomachs. So here’s my proposal du jour: a 2 percent tax on advertising revenues would yield at least $3 billion a year. Three-quarters of it should go into a pool to support cultural development (but that’s another blog). The remainder (at current rates, one-quarter would accrue every four years into a fund amounting to at least $3 billion) should support compulsory public financing of presidential campaigns, slowing the money contest by removing the profit motive from elections.
One Person, One Vote:Many actions have been taken since our electoral system’s inception to weaken direct democracy, positioning the thumb of the most powerful on the scales of electoral justice. The whole “superdelegates” concept, whereby Democratic party leaders and elected officials are given approximately one-fifth of the delegate slots at each convention, was put in place in 1982 explicitly to reduce direct control by the electorate in favor of party loyalists less likely to shake things up. (The Republicans’ delegate system also includes automatic slots for elected officials and other designated categories added to each state’s delegation, but everyone expects them to be elitist, so it doesn’t excite so much controversy.)
In instituting the “superdelegate” system, Democrats were following in the illustrious and somewhat elitist footsteps of the founders, who designed the Electoral College to put elections in the hands of a small number of individuals (equalling the total of all Senators and Representatives in each state), thereby ensuring that when it comes to our highest office, direct democracy is beside the point. (If we really had direct democracy, we’d shortly be marking the end of President Gore’s second term.)
Both parties should take the ethical high ground by adopting a direct democratic vote of the electorate as the sole determinant of voting delegations at party conventions. What’s more, when it comes to the general election, they should replace the Electoral College with a straight popular vote.
There are many arguments for intermediary systems that position some elite force between the voters and the result: they balance the excesses of a self-interested majority (e.g., with direct democracy, a smaller number of populous states could elect someone indifferent to, and rejected by, voters in all the smaller states); they preserve the federal character of the nation, so that states continue to have weight as governmental counterforces; they put people in charge of final decisions who can consider all the information right up to the last moment, including things that may not have come to light during primaries; and so on.
The arguments against them seem much simpler and stronger. The two chambers of Congress provide adequate influence for smaller states, a commodious arena for the assertion of states’ varying interests. But when it comes to the offices of President and Vice President, all of us are affected equally by the choice of candidate, and all of us should have the final say: one person, one vote.
The good people of Maryland and New Jersey evidently agree, because they have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It’s a halfway measure toward abolishing the Electoral College, whereby individual states adopt laws pledging their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, thus making an end-run around the Electoral College. The Compact has 370 sponsors and a blue-ribbon advisory board of former members of Congress, polls show that 70 percent of voters favor a national popular vote, and it’s been endorsed by public interest groups such as Common Cause.
Shortening The Ordeal: It’s difficult to find even a pundit-for-hire willing to emit a sound-bite about how spreading active presidential campaigns over two years is good for democracy. Consider how Britain has managed to govern itself (certainly no worse than our performance) with campaigns for national election that last no more than two or three months. British law decrees a national election at least every five years, but the date is not fixed: an election must be held within five years of the first meeting of Parliament following the previous election. The Prime Minister calls the election, which must be held 17 working days after the resulting royal proclamation dissolving the previous Parliament. Since no one knows precisely when the next election will be coming, candidate ready themselves and do things like give speeches, write op-eds and kiss babies; but it would be foolish to buy campaign advertising until the election date is fixed, and this reality limits the period of active campaigning.
What if Congress were in charge of calling national elections, with the requirement that there must be a national election at least every four years? And what if the election had to be held within a fixed time after it was called, but no more than a few months? Yes, I recognize a lot would have to change to enable a system like this (the differential terms between Senators and Representatives, for instance). But the fact that limited-term campaigning exists and serves elsewhere suggests it could be made to work here too. Wouldn’t that be nice?
In almost every way, this is the best presidential primary campaign I have ever experienced, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if every day of the next seven months you and I didn’t fervently wish for it to be over. We could do something about that. For now, having conversations about what might heal a wounded system would feel like a really good start.