Every campaign season, we hear public outcry about the state of things in our electoral system. These hues and cries seem to coalesce around two primary themes: the quality of the campaigns themselves; and the monotonous lack of character exhibited by the candidates themselves.
Elective politics is a wholesale exercise – appealing to the lowest common denominator of the largest number of people possible, because accumulating more votes than the opponent is all that counts. Given that, it must be recognized that driving up negatives (things people won’t like about a stranger) is easier than driving up positives (enticing people to trust a stranger). This is human nature. And that is why voting records and on-the-record comments are always shown simplistically and out of context, even in relatively “nice” campaigns. They are betting that the voters in the audience don’t know enough about the issues to realize that the material has been edited to be misleading.
Today’s campaigns are waged on television in 30-second increments, which also leads to simplistic superficiality and negative messages. In my memory, only Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign managed to successfully wage a positive campaign on TV, and that’s because everybody was already painfully aware of the negatives of the double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation of the incumbent.
But if negative campaigns are inherently disingenuous, why do they work? Largely, they succeed because nobody is systematically doing objective fact-checking on the ads. While this would be a natural function of the national press, they tend not to do it for reasons ranging from the sinister to the mundane. It falls to the voter to determine the quality of the message – and this is why the quality of a democracy is directly related to the political sophistication of the voting polity. Hence, Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.”
One of the ways Dr Franklin feared we may lose our republic was expressed thus: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic,” and that leads us to the paucity of quality in our public officials. Lord Dalberg, in 1887 wrote to Bishop Mandell that “power tends to corrupt …”, and he’s right. That is why your senators and representatives more closely resemble Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane than Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith. Given dominion over anonymous strangers truly tests the nobility of men. It gets to the heart of intent versus consequences – does a man do well if he accomplishes good by doing bad? And who defines “well”, “good” and “bad”? In the end, we each do, and on Election Day, we all do. While most wouldn’t stoop to the duplicitous depths that politicians routinely practice, we seem more than willing to let them do it for us if we benefit from the process (read: bringing home the bacon). We love to publicly disdain the liars and thieves who we privately re-elect, as long we get our cut.
The Kafka-esque concept of bribing us with our own money is precisely why obviously smarmy self-servers are allowed to recidivate. We keep asking them to.