Many Americans were thrilled with the results of the recent election. Others were disappointed. But, regardless of how one felt about the outcome, the campaign process was ugly – not something that any American can be proud of.
Think about the democracy the nation’s founding fathers envisioned. They expected and engaged in hardball politics, some unfair attacks, and they were wise enough to recognize that the political process would never be flawless. But they probably expected a system where voters are informed about the views and vision of the candidates and that voters have some engagement in the major issues facing our state and nation. To accomplish this, we would have campaigns where candidates would spell out their views, point out differences with the opposition, and promote their proposals for the future.
Look back at the 2008 campaign and ask yourself whether our political conduct this year is what we need in order to sustain our democracy. Out of thousands of political commercials on TV and radio, one would be hard pressed to find any that discussed candidate positions on nuclear proliferation or predatory lending or federal “no-bid” contracting or sentencing for drug crimes or funding for nursing homes or hundreds of other issues that matter to the American people. Instead, there was a barrage of ads containing not-very-helpful and not-very-reliable information about the opposition’s personal lives and distorted “facts” about their positions on issues.
Among the most outrageous attacks was the accusation that President-Elect Obama would “pal around with terrorists” and may have “anti-American” views. The attack ads were filled with such harsh rhetoric that at one McCain rally, in response to Senator McCain’s question, “who is the real Barack Obama?” someone in the audience yelled out “terrorist.” While candidates cannot control all of their supporters, in this case the candidates were inciting irresponsible behavior.
It is not that there wasn’t enough money to get one’s views on the issues heard. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that a staggering $5.8 Billion was spent on the 2008 election. In Minnesota, the most expensive Senate race in the country, total spending will likely top $50 million.
Of the $5.8 billion, about $1.5 billion was spent in the Presidential race, almost twice the amount spent in 2004, and about four times as much as was spent in 2000. Voters were not four times as well informed as they were eight years ago. They may actually have been less well informed. We simply saw a big increase in the number of the same worthless, mind-numbing attack ads. The more money campaigns spend, the less information seems to be conveyed to the voters.
This big spending is troubling. Interest groups spend ever increasing amounts on political contributions and independent expenditures because they expect favorable legislation and administrative action – there is a great return on their investment. This buying of access is an assault on our democracy. These are supposed to be elections, not auctions.
The problem is not just the money. The media gives too much attention to the polls, the amounts of money raised, and analyzing who might be ahead. They ignore discussion of complex policies and do too little to hold candidates accountable for distortions and unfair campaign tactics. The public also has done little to hold campaigns accountable.
Much of the campaign rhetoric and many of the ads were full of distortion to the point that they were outright lies. Democracy requires something better than political candidates who lie to get into office. We cannot teach the next generation of voters the importance of honesty when they see widespread acceptance of dishonesty in political campaigns.
Cynical candidates and campaign consultants always claim you can’t win an election unless you compromise the truth, unless you appeal to the worst in people, unless you run personal attacks on your opponent, and unless you rely on the big money.
But if our democracy is to survive, we must rise above the negative approach of candidates who will stoop to anything for an election victory. We need to recognize, as a society, that there is a line that should not be crossed, a certain level of decency that should not be violated for political expediency.
A number of years ago, journalist D.J. Tice wrote, “There will never be a reduction in coarsening, negative campaigning, or in mercenary government-for-sale, until politicians refuse to engage in such practices…. If you’re tempted to argue that this is asking for too much idealism, recall that, in the end, democracy itself depends on people believing there is something more important than winning.”
This fall, campaigns trampled on the very values we need if democracy is to survive: fairness, honesty, and integrity. Returning to those values would make future campaigns less insufferable, and more importantly, is essential to our future as a nation.