Should We Blame the Voters?
The Farce of the Political Campaign
It’s presidential election season again, and the games are well underway. As we celebrate the “joys” of the democratic process over the next several months, Americans will respond in different ways. Many will stay busy with things that seem more relevant than politics. Some will seize the opportunity to punish those bastards that are in charge or to reward public officials for a job well done (or, more likely, for appearing to be better than the alternative). Others will see this as a chance to jump on the partisan bandwagon of their choice and to celebrate the righteousness of their ideology with those who share their wisdom. Still others will find plenty of reasons to be disgusted by this charade that passes for a democratic process.
While I try to avoid excessive cynicism, I tend to find myself in that last category. Campaigns put on display the worst elements of American politics and of human nature in general. As far as I can tell, political campaigns are a colossal waste of time and money. Candidates travel around giving vague speeches, shaking hands, kissing babies, eating fried butter, and posing for various photo ops. They are careful to avoid saying too much of substance while they are engaged in this performance. Too much detail, after all, can get you into trouble. Long, in-depth speeches on actual issues tend to bore the pants off of the audience. Also, if you lay out some specifics, your opponent will find something in there as ammunition to piss off potential voters. The more vague that you are, the less likely it is that you can be pinned down to specific ideas that might rub people the wrong way. And the more effective your little sound bites and catch phrases, the more memorable and entertaining is your “message.”
This traveling circus, of course, costs some money. But the cost of traveling is just the tip of the iceberg. Campaigns that hope to have a prayer must also have enough money to afford other vehicles for providing voters with “information.” They must be able to hang signs all over the place, send out political junk mail, create automated phone messages, and, most importantly, flood the airwaves with political advertising. Campaigns, therefore, often become a political fundraising competition, and the candidate with the biggest war chest frequently comes out on top.
So where does all of this money come from? Some comes from small-time donors who believe in a candidate enough to part with some of their hard earned dollars. The more important dollars, however, come from wealthy individuals or from powerful interest groups who expect to receive something in return for their investment. This is why real political reform is so hard to achieve. Powerful interest groups wish to maintain the status quo or to improve their prospects through the passage of favorable legislation. Politicians who appreciate their donations and need more in the future are afraid to go too far in biting the hands that feed them.
Campaigns should not be fundraising competitions. They should be battles of ideas. In a perfect world, candidates would each receive an equal amount of money and equivalent media exposure in order to make their pitch. In the internet age, there is little need for candidates to travel around and flood the airwaves with advertising anyway. If people are looking for detailed information on a candidate, they can just go to the person’s web site. You can learn a lot more there than you can from a 30-second commercial, a pamphlet in the mail, or a sound bite from a campaign speech.
Those who want to get the big money out of politics have often turned to various ideas for campaign finance reform. It is very difficult, however, in a nation that supports the concept of free speech, to snuff out every method that individuals and organizations may use to push their political agenda. Plus, incumbents have little motivation to change a system in which they have a distinct fundraising advantage. So there is only one, simple solution to our problem of “bought-off” candidates running crappy campaigns: higher quality voters. If voters were no longer influenced by the garbage put out by political campaigns, then candidates would no longer need the money to feed it to us. I have always been baffled by tactics like political commercials, sign hanging, and robo-Bill Clinton calling us up to tell us how to vote. Are people actually influenced by this stuff? If you see a sign enough times that says, “vote for Bob,” do you eventually just go ahead and do it? Do you really take seriously anything that is said in an obviously biased campaign commercial? Do you get excited when a “virtual celebrity” calls you up to give some political advice? Do people who run campaigns think that we are this stupid? No. They know that we are.
Political advertising is no different from any other form of advertising. Candidates are sold in the same way as beer, prescription drugs, and car insurance: visual images, attacks on competitors, celebrity endorsements, and catchy slogans. If this stuff did not work, then they would change their tactics. Unfortunately, advertisers of all kinds have spent decades honing their craft. To change the nature of advertising, it may be necessary to change human nature. Reversing the effects of millennia of human evolution, however, is a bitch. Our brains are bigger than other creatures, but like all animals, we are often driven by irrational impulses, not our potential capacity for reason.
So in the end, a democracy is only as good as its voting public, a fact that has caused many political philosophers over the centuries to question the wisdom of giving the masses too much input. Most Americans, however, have concluded that elections, for all their weaknesses, are the best way to choose leaders. But if we want better leaders, then we must do out best to become people who are not so easily manipulated into buying things.