The “silly season” is now upon us, and the American electorate will have to endure months of that deadly quadrennial activity we call: presidential elections! Our presidential elections have degenerated into an obscene morass of money, personal attacks and negativism. No wonder the public has so little regard for government.
Worse yet, the trend seems to be a further decline each election cycle, and amelioration or improvement is nowhere in sight. The reasons are many, but they are worth examining if positive change is to be made.
- The length of our campaigns is outrageously long. No other developed country has anything near our multiyear campaigning with extended primaries, caucuses, debates, and general maneuvering. In January of 2010, the London 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, the minimum length of a campaign is 36 days. The longest campaign ever (1926) was only 74 days. 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.
- We are now swimming in an obscenity of money and campaign financing. It does not make for better campaigns – it makes them worse. We are now in an era of media sound bites and 30 second attack ads – not genuine positive ideas to make our country run better. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision may go down as the worst (and most damaging) reading of law in modern history – it has changed our electoral landscape for the worse, possibly forever.
- Voter ID law changes (and related state constitutional amendments) are culling registration and participation in a way that will subtly discourage voter interest and involvement in the election process. Indeed, America already has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any developed country: about 60 percent in the 2008 election. By contrast, Denmark, which has much shorter campaigns and prohibits campaign TV ads, in a recent election had an 87 percent turnout (virtually every European country gets over 80 percent participation).
- The power of the political fringes has increased to a level where accommodation, compromise, progress and action is paralyzed. This is especially true among the Republicans; and although the far right candidates eventually dropped out after the primaries and caucuses, Mitt Romney (the presumptive winner) had to pledge his fidelity to the right wing base so vigorously, that he eventually became “one of them.”
- Finally, the temper of presidential campaigns has become so negative, it not only turns off the public from participation, but more importantly sheds far more heat than light on which direction(s) will benefit America best as we move forward into an increasingly complex world. While neither candidate has really articulated comprehensive programs concerning vital issues – particularly the economy – President Barack Obama at least has a record to run on. Romney, however, has invested virtually all his campaign time telling us what is wrong with Obama, rather than what is right about his plans and programs. Without knowing that, the public may be buying into an administration that could prove a disastrous choice for our country. We deserve better.
In America, the length of the campaigns, the frequency of primary debates, and the outrageous costs have deadened the voters to connecting with the issues, and engaging in the process. Then, of course, 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 too often said: “Who cares?” Well, we should care. We must care if we truly want better government. And making our elections shorter, less costly, and more positive would be a vital first step.
Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.