In one of
the odder moments of the current presidential campaign, Congressman
Ron Paul recently admitted that he has a hard time seeing himself
as the President of the United States. The media and the professional
pundit class reacted in horror as a high polling candidate made
one of the most basic mistakes of campaigning: he told the truth.
are generally required to have a superhuman ability to ignore objective
data. As a result, even candidates polling in the low single digits
days before an election, will never admit they are long shots. Michelle
Bachman did so last week when she described an unreported surge
in her Iowa campaign even while her poll numbers were plummeting.
She ultimately finished last in the caucus. The same tendencies
permit politicians to blithely evade bluntly posed questions, and
then claim that the evasion was, in fact, a legitimate answer.
Ron Paul, like
most private citizens, wont play that game. By admitting doubts
he showed himself to be a human figure in an otherwise cartoonish
spectacle. Unfortunately American voters have shown time and again
that they prefer a photoshoped smile to a brow furrowed for very
good reasons. The Iowa laurels eventually went to Mitt Romney, the
polished and malleable empty vessel from central casting, and Rick
Santorum, the plain vanilla ex-senator who has done everything except
mount a cross to attract the evangelical vote.
At this point
in the election cycle many of us may be feeling a familiar queasiness.
It happens every four years when we realize that the current election
is sillier, shallower, longer, less substantive and more cynical
than the prior election (which we had previously believed to be
the all time low). We always think it cant get any worse,
but then it does.
Why is this
so? There is widespread belief that our electoral system is broken.
So if no one likes it, why does it persist? To paraphrase a better
writer, the fault may not lie in stars but in ourselves. Everybody
supposedly hates negative political ads, but there can be no disputing
that they are effective. When they are unleashed, the candidate
in the crosshairs slips in the polls. That most of these ads are
clumsy fabrications that distort truth and pander to fear and prejudice
makes little difference. In many cases the most distortive and juvenile
ads are the most effective. We must conclude that a painfully large
percentage of voters look to TV advertising as a primary source
of political information. If this were not true, the ads wouldnt
Why are voters
so easily influenced? I believe that policy issues are much less
influential to most people than are schoolyard popularity tactics
and name calling. We have an electorate that prefers simple assessments
and easy answers. It gravitates toward candidates that reflect those
tendencies. Those who speak in nuance, who reveal common human traits
and who dont fit into the widely accepted boxes, are simply
never going to appeal to the vast majority of voters.
So what we
really have here is a flaw in the American brand of winner
take all democracy, where attracting 51% of an under-engaged,
easily manipulated electorate is sufficient to hold the field. Strict
advocates for the original intent of the U.S. Constitution argue
that the Founding Fathers dealt with these shortcomings by limiting
voting eligibility, providing for the indirect elections of presidents
and senators, and the purposeful subordination of executive to legislative
power. But given that the Constitution was designed as amendable,
it was inevitable that those provisions would be relaxed as greater
democratic participation became an unquestioned virtue. The only
way to stop that process would have been to make a Constitution
so rigid that revolution would have become an irresistible pathway
for mass discontent.
Just as C-Span
cant compete with the Jersey Shore, the real exchange of ideas
that goes along with an honest and thorough assessment of government
and society cant compete with grainy black and white images
that make a candidate look like a dorky mob boss with a flabby gut
and a sinister grimace. As a result, the marketing of a presidential
candidate is not much different than the marketing of toothpaste.
The birth of
the 24 hour news cycle has given much greater breadth to presidential
coverage, but sadly little more in the way of depth, which can be
a ratings disaster. The endless repetition of rehearsed catch phrases
and nasty personal attacks has forced serious discussion farther
out onto the blogosphere where few take note. Politics now occupies
a cultural realm somewhere between advertising and reality television.
The only hope is in producing a more historically, economically,
and civicly discerning electorate. But current trends are not promising
on that front.
once famously said that democracy is the worst form of government,
except for all the others. I tend to agree. Perhaps it is foolish
that a large monolithic nation state can long exist under a benign
and well run government. If that is the case, then the idea for
decentralized power and competitive government deserves more consideration.
suppose that more power rested with states, or even municipalities,
and that these more autonomous regions could have much more freedom
in creating competing versions of the ideal society. People could
then cast much more meaningful votes, the most important one being
the ability to pick and move to regions that reflected their own
values. Governments would then rise or fall depending on the efficacy
of their policies and their societys ability to attract and
retain productive people. In such an environment, bad government
would be quickly self-defeating.
© Andrew Schiff