Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Dumb, Dysfunctional Disservice

The interminable U.S. presidential election campaign's lack of seriousness devalues our democracy, co-opts the media, and makes cynics of believers in politics as an instrument of meaningful change. It needs to be shortened.

Even for a hardened cynic, election season in the U.S. can be a trying time. Worse yet, it's a long time -- while in many other countries national election campaigns last anywhere from a couple weeks to 4-5 months, in the U.S. they begin 1.5 years or more before the actual election.  During this epoch, the least pretense to rational dialogue is left by the wayside. Instead, most "serious" candidates only occasionally deviate from vague statements, devoid of substance and nuance, in order to trumpet the most irresponsible and implausible ideas. They often delve into logical incoherence as they try to make themselves broadly, impossibly palatable across a host of issues. Pointing this out, for whatever reason, is the domain not of serious journalists who confront the candidates, but of late-night comedians.

The only publicized respite we get from a non-informative discussion of issues comes in the form of trivial scandals -- verbal gaffes, email irregularities, exaggerated personal backgrounds, spats with reporters, discredited conspiracies, etc. These get funneled through the "team sports" mentality of America's stultifying two-party system, ensuring that our nightly news programs, cable TV pundits, opinion columnists, and social media memes remain fixated on an inane series of point-counterpoint to fill up our time until next November.

It's difficult to shake the feeling that politics is a game and we're all being played. How else to explain the routine comment that the eventual Republican and Democratic nominees will "tack to the center" after the primaries have passed? Do their views on issues suddenly change between the week before and after the party conventions? No, but they now have to tell a different group of people what they want to hear. Which may be entirely different than what they had to tell voters in Iowa, something very different from what they told voters in New Hampshire, and so on.

Given that, it's no surprise that voters default to simplified caricatures of their options, deciding whom they would rather have a beer with, who most projects "outsider" status, or who they are confident aligns with their own views on a single key issue. And all the while we maintain an illusion that two parties can meet the diverse needs of nearly 320 million people, or that one candidate can even meet the needs of his own party. It's a setup for inevitable disappointment, and results in a lack of faith in government. One of the most effective ways to address this problem is impossible -- replacing our winner-take-all system with a party proportional representation will never happen since our two parties have no incentive to give up their monopoly on power.

However, at least somewhat in the realm of the plausible, the election cycle should be shortened by limiting when candidates can register and when they and their affiliated PACs can begin raising money. It's hard to believe now, but Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in November 1979, less than a year before the 1980 election he won. Announcements have come earlier and earlier ever since. And to prevent the perpetual unofficial campaigning -- as well as add much needed diversity to the process - we need to no longer have the first primaries every year in Iowa and New Hampshire. New states should be chosen each year, randomly, after a certain date to prevent anyone from getting a head start. Even these relatively modest changes could go a long way toward revitalizing what has become a stale, restrictive process.

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