The Day After-- Election glut in America
A former student of mine, Steven Hill, has just published an essential book, 10 Steps To Repair American Democracy. It describes symptoms revealing just how sick our political system has become-- a system we now seek to export to the rest of the world. We have low voter turnout (less than half of Europe's), excessive fundraising and spending, a high percentage of incumbents returned to office, gerrymandering, ballot-counting scandals, use of focus groups for determining candidate positions and strategy, only two main-stream political parties, avoidance of such controversial issues as energy, transportation and illegal drug policy, and more mind-numbing advertising than honest debate or dialogue.
Steven Hill urges tactics to fix this downward spiral, and for that we must read his book. Here I want to discuss one problem that Hill doesn't adequately address, one related to all the above problems, namely our endless political campaigns.
After Georges Bush decided to run for president in 2000, he began campaigning 18 months ahead. Barack Obama has recently announced that he will decide in January about a similar effort, and if he does decide he would begin running-- 22 months before the election.
What problems does perpetual electoral campaigning pose? It means that those in office focus on re-election and are distracted from attending to city, county, state or national business. If Obama does run, he could spend as much or more time on the stump than in his current Senate seat. Long, messy runs are expensive because campaigning for 20 months obviously costs more than one or two months. The biggest price, however, is that, to voters, interminable and repetitious political rhetoric becomes tiresome, dull and boring. Even political junkies grow satiated and lose interest after a while. Matters as important to this community as protection of drinking water, the Greenways Levy or electing the mayor became tedious after four or five months. When we the people lose interest in politicians and officials who exercise power over us (the definition of politics), democracy falls at risk.
I've lived in Germany during two or three national elections, including a very contentious one in 2005. Campaigns there (as in Canada, to cite a closer example) last only four to five weeks. It's a special time when all else, including governing, stops in order to concentrate on public debate. Germans hear and read about it daily, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. On their ballots they have more parties and more options than we have, adding to the turmoil. Things get tense. It's so important that voting (Wahltag) is done on Sundays. But then, as abruptly as campaigns begin, they end. All's quiet on the election front for another two to four years. Voter turnout is typically 80-90 percent of the adult population. A defeated Nazi Germany trained in democracy by Americans is now participating better than we do.
One explanation for this is that Germans and Canadians don't have a First Amendment that guarantees nearly absolute freedom of speech, especially political speech, which means that those governments can establish time limits for campaigns. To legally force someone to not run for office whenever they please clearly violates freedom of speech and freedom of association protected by the first Amendment. It's hard for ACLU-types like me to accept, but the Bill of Rights and especially the First Amendment do have their downsides, this being one of them (other examples include the protection of racist ideas, harmful commercial advertising and vicious pornography).
A way around this legal imbroglio is to restrain ourselves voluntarily, the basis of a Campaign Compact. Everyone in office, or planning to run for office, out of respect for the common good would sign an agreement promising to campaign for only a limited amount of time, perhaps a month or six weeks at most. Once enough candidates had joined the Compact, public pressure and obliquity would punish those who broke their vow or refused to comply, exposed as radical social runts unfit for office.
How about our primary elections, which don't exist in Canada or Germany? Drop them. Primaries historically are party functions, so let the political parties at their own expense figure out their candidates as they please.
We can begin this experiment at the local city and county level and then, if successful, expand to the state and federal. Although not monumental like the Mayflower Compact, even a modest reform of our ineffectual, wasteful campaigns for public office could be strong medicine toward healing sick and feeble American elections. It's time for a new Compact.
Bob Keller is an author, a teacher and board member of the Whatcom Land Trust. In 2004 he was honored as one of Bellingham's "Environmental Heroes".