American Political Tomfoolery – Part 1
The first post published in this blog came in September of 2012, shortly before the Presidential election of that year. Close enough to the election to have missed the shenanigans currently going on in preparation for the nominating conventions which preceded it (more correctly, the GOP process, as President Obama stood unopposed on the Democratic side). There is plenty of time to post about that process for the upcoming 2016 election (too much, if you ask me).
An initial observation is that these campaigns start way too early and last way too long without ever seeming to adequately address very many, if any, of the issues and policy choices that will most affect our lives in the four years of the next administration. Much of this is driven by the mass media, which persists in insisting on speculation of who will run on what issues in the next election before the present election results have even been finalized. This is especially true when term limits dictate that no incumbent will be running in the next election.
The way this year’s preliminaries are shaping up seem to be as chaotic as the 2012 campaign on the Republican side. So far, there are 17 announced candidates of differing backgrounds with varying degrees of name recognition. Some issues may in time demonstrate significant differences among the candidates, but that process has been slow in coming. Candidates are busy bashing the current president ( which seems useless, since he won’t be on the ballot), the presumed Democrat front-runner, or struggling to be heard above the cacophony which has accompanied the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Since Trump announced his candidacy, he has been almost the lone focus of mainstream media coverage. Other candidates have been struggling to get attention to discuss anything other than some of the more outrageous proposals or insulting remarks he has made regarding everything from his opponents records and immigrants to female journalists who ask him questions he finds objectionable. The first debate(s) covered by Fox News were widely watched for Trump’s entertainment value. Ratings for the main event were extraordinarily high for a political debate, but the value in terms of clarifying positions on substantive issues was minimal at best. Post-debate commentary focused mainly on Trump and the issue of immigration, which has continued to fuel his current relatively high standing in the polls. His spat with a female moderator served little purpose in my mind other than to strengthen him in his competition with Chris Christie as worst bully among the declared candidates.
Anyone who did not watch the debate would have little new information on where the other candidates stand on the issues, other than a few quips that made highlight reels. Pundits’ reactions have so far not been reflected in subsequent opinion polls. At this point, several months prior to any caucus or primary votes being cast, the main reason for having the debate seems to have been media filler to cover the gap in political news caused by the August Congressional recess (which, as usual, makes no sense. It’s not like they’ve done any momentous legislating to warrant a needed rest).
Subsequent debates held by other networks may prove to be more valuable, but having so many candidates vying for precious free airtime will probably make that problematic. Several candidates already have tremendous campaign war chests raised both individually and by “non-affiliated” Political Action Committees on their behalf. The main beneficiaries of the seeming total lack of political campaign spending limits brought about by the Supreme Court decisions in recent years appears to be the media outlets salivating over the thought of all those ad buys coming up to bombard us all with meaningless (and also often untruthful) sound bites seeking to drown each other out and gain our votes.
The Trump impact has so far been influential in focusing the campaign on issues like deporting people who entered or remain in the country illegally, the Constitutional issue of birthright citizenship and how big a wall to build to close the border with Mexico. Little or no thought has been given to clarifying these issues or quantifying to costs implicit in actually bringing such policies to fruition, let alone how they will be paid for. Another example of the lack of “there” there similar to that which occurs when someone asks those vowing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act what they will replace it with.
Other candidates have important contributions to make to a national debate on many other important issues, and they have been doing so with limited success. The issues getting the most airtime have thus far seemed to reinforce the image the Republican party has seemed to project as being the party of old white men determined to do as little as is necessary to maintain government control by the elites who have been enriched and politically strengthened by the economic and political policies which have resulted in our current economic inequality and social injustice. Selling that to their base and getting them to vote while suppressing the vote of opponents (either directly through laws or indirectly through disillusionment) so they can win back the White House while maintaining control of a heavily gerrymandered Congress seems to be their strategy. The only question is which candidate can gain the backing of which plutocrats at the right time.
Issues are being missed. People are being distracted from some very important issues by this concentration on a few issues that have been deliberately inadequately addressed by the party for years. This enables candidates to avoid more than a cursory discussion of other issues where they will be shown to be sorely lacking. Climate change comes to mind, as do the issues of trade, wars and our foreign policy as a whole. Pronouncements made so far seem to indicate very little difference among the candidates when it comes to these issues, but a very significant difference between the policies they would seek to pursue and what the voters would prefer. Whoever the Democrats pick will be sure to bring these shortcomings to the forefront in the general election campaign (unless, of course, their position on those issues isn’t significantly different).
Republicans being pulled to the right on certain issues by a candidate who may or may not be in the race for the long haul not only makes their eventual nominee less representative of their party membership as a whole, it makes them even less able to serve the interests of Democrats and increasing numbers of people who eschew party affiliation entirely or belong to smaller party organizations. Having closed primaries, as many states (including my own) currently use to choose nominees, effectively silences independent voters in the candidate selection process. Adding to that the obstacles most states place in the way of access to the ballot for third party or independent candidates makes the two-party stranglehold on our current political system extremely hard to crack. Sure, Bernie Sanders is trying to work through that system to get the Democratic nod, but he is no Democrat and they know it (despite the fact he votes like one more often than some of their own elected officials).
Every campaign ignores the issues near and dear to the hearts and minds of millions of Americans because they can be ignored and somebody either Republican or Democrat will win the election 99% of the time. That doesn’t mean the winner will be the best representative or most effective leader for their constituents as a whole. Other systems allow for broader representation of more parties and viewpoints than ours seems to at this point. Perhaps a lessening of some of these barriers to effective political participation, rather than further disenfranchisement as seen in voter suppression legislation, would make the system more democratic (small d).
Something must also be done to lessen the power of money in these campaigns. Nobody should be an automatic possessor of political influence due to the size their bank account. Private funding of political campaigns should become a thing of the past. Everyday, I receive pleas for political contributions – some from people whose political views diametrically oppose my own. Politicians spend more time raising money than they do performing the jobs they were elected to perform. True, some succeed by taking lots of small donations. They shouldn’t have to. The merits of a candidate should be demonstrable by their performance and/or the strength of their ideas, not by the quantity of the lies and distortions they can afford to flood the airwaves with.
Reducing campaign war chests while increasing the number of inclusive debates would go a long way toward establishing a more democratic political system than we have had since before even the Citizens United decision opened the campaign finance floodgates. Making the campaigns more about political ideas and less about profits for media conglomerates and the election of true representatives of the peoples’ interests instead of the plutocratic elites would make for a more just society as a whole.
Suggested Further Readings: