Commenting on the recent election in well regarded post mortems, various pundits have cogently described what the ramifications of Barack Obama’s reelection will mean to the country. Most seem astute – but missing from these analyses was probably the most important consequence we could and should learn from this election. That would be a careful look at the election process itself in America today. And, it isn’t pretty.
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Had any of the sources examined this component of the election, they would have found virtually unanimous criticism of three disturbing trends in our electoral process: our presidential elections are too long…too expensive…and too negative. Additionally, the future of presidential elections portends more of the same — maybe even worse — unless we demand some changes in the process.
It started in early 2011, when a wide range of Republican presidential candidates began jockeying for the nomination. Throughout that summer the nation was inundated with a series of debates, along with fratricidal fighting and attacks on the opposition (mostly Democrats, but Republican challengers as well). We had to endure over a year and a half of bickering and babble to get to a final outcome. The first primary state (Iowa, which is actually a caucus state) was Jan. 3; then 11 more months of ads and acrimony till Nov. 6.
The effect of this is that the public has become numb and increasingly disinterested (sometimes even disgusted), when we should be having a stimulating debate on the future of our nation. That has not – and will not – happen with our present system.
No other democratic nation (especially those we most identify with) have such a grueling and protracted schedule, and ours has now stretched out to absurd lengths. In January of 2010, the Guardian published this quote about the length of the English election process: “Over the years, Margaret Thatcher was wrong about a lot of things. One thing she got right, however, was the length of British general election campaigns. ‘Three weeks is long enough,’ she pronounced in 1997”. Though the British have Parliamentary elections, her surmise is quite apt.
Similarly, in Canada, the length of election campaigns can vary, but under the Elections Act, there is no explicit maximum length for a campaign; however, the longest campaign ever (1926) was only 74 days. Most are much shorter.
Again, in Australia, upon dissolution of Parliament, writs are issued for nominations within 10 days; and the total length of the election process is generally about 68 days start to finish. These are lessons to which we should pay heed.
When the final cost tally is in, there will have been several billion dollars invested in this election – obscene amounts. Election costs have been rising for decades for several reasons. Two worthy of note are the proliferation of television outlets which are voracious in their consumption of candidates’ dollars; and the SCOTUS decision in the Citizens United case. By allowing unlimited sums from corporations and unions, Citizens United has created massively funded Super PACs who have spent huge sums on mostly negative attack ads. Since they are not allowed to coordinate with specific candidates, their strategy has been to saturate the media with edgy and sometimes scurrilous attacks on candidates or causes they oppose. The good news here is that because of the frequency of the ads, the public has in a sense turned them off, and to some degree the frequency along with the negative messages has created an occasional backlash. Additionally, new studies have found that the effect of all this PAC spending may not affect election outcomes as much as first believed. One can only hope!
Negative campaigns are not new, but the trend is for greater acrimony. Possibly our primary and caucus system creates a base for negative campaigning because to get the nomination one has to provide contrasts between themselves and others from their own party. But whatever the reason, substantive debates on policy are often sublimated to the tidal wave of aforementioned negative ads, bickering, and babble. The voting public says it wants to hear positive programs and policy from the candidates – but such specificity is generally lacking. The true “debates” on policy amounted to a few hours of national TV time a month before the election. Perhaps more of that, and less sound bites, might be more enlightening?
More important lesson:
Skilled analysts offer useful commentary concerning the past election; but most involve the ramifications for the next few years of the Obama administration. Of greater importance is the way we can strengthen the electoral process for future elections. InAmerica today, the length of the campaigns, negativism, and outrageous costs have deadened the voters to connecting with the issues. Then, there is the time our president (and candidates) spend campaigning rather than governing. In a sense, we have relegated ourselves to elections in which it is now too often said: “who cares”? Well, we should care if we truly want better government. And making our elections shorter, less costly, and more positive would be a vital first step.