Democracy's Least Common Denominators


In one of the odder moments of the current presidential campaign, Congressman Ron Paul recently admitted that he has a hard time seeing himself as the President of the United States. The media and the professional pundit class reacted in horror as a high polling candidate made one of the most basic mistakes of campaigning: he told the truth.

Politicians are generally required to have a superhuman ability to ignore objective data. As a result, even candidates polling in the low single digits days before an election, will never admit they are long shots. Michelle Bachman did so last week when she described an unreported surge in her Iowa campaign even while her poll numbers were plummeting. She ultimately finished last in the caucus. The same tendencies permit politicians to blithely evade bluntly posed questions, and then claim that the evasion was, in fact, a legitimate answer.

Ron Paul, like most private citizens, won’t play that game. By admitting doubts he showed himself to be a human figure in an otherwise cartoonish spectacle. Unfortunately American voters have shown time and again that they prefer a photoshoped smile to a brow furrowed for very good reasons. The Iowa laurels eventually went to Mitt Romney, the polished and malleable empty vessel from central casting, and Rick Santorum, the plain vanilla ex-senator who has done everything except mount a cross to attract the evangelical vote.

At this point in the election cycle many of us may be feeling a familiar queasiness. It happens every four years when we realize that the current election is sillier, shallower, longer, less substantive and more cynical than the prior election (which we had previously believed to be the all time low). We always think it can’t get any worse, but then it does.

Why is this so? There is widespread belief that our electoral system is broken. So if no one likes it, why does it persist? To paraphrase a better writer, the fault may not lie in stars but in ourselves. Everybody supposedly hates negative political ads, but there can be no disputing that they are effective. When they are unleashed, the candidate in the crosshairs slips in the polls. That most of these ads are clumsy fabrications that distort truth and pander to fear and prejudice makes little difference. In many cases the most distortive and juvenile ads are the most effective. We must conclude that a painfully large percentage of voters look to TV advertising as a primary source of political information. If this were not true, the ads wouldn’t work.

Why are voters so easily influenced? I believe that policy issues are much less influential to most people than are schoolyard popularity tactics and name calling. We have an electorate that prefers simple assessments and easy answers. It gravitates toward candidates that reflect those tendencies. Those who speak in nuance, who reveal common human traits and who don’t fit into the widely accepted boxes, are simply never going to appeal to the vast majority of voters.

So what we really have here is a flaw in the American brand of “winner take all democracy,” where attracting 51% of an under-engaged, easily manipulated electorate is sufficient to hold the field. Strict advocates for the original intent of the U.S. Constitution argue that the Founding Fathers dealt with these shortcomings by limiting voting eligibility, providing for the indirect elections of presidents and senators, and the purposeful subordination of executive to legislative power. But given that the Constitution was designed as amendable, it was inevitable that those provisions would be relaxed as greater democratic participation became an unquestioned virtue. The only way to stop that process would have been to make a Constitution so rigid that revolution would have become an irresistible pathway for mass discontent.

Just as C-Span can’t compete with the Jersey Shore, the real exchange of ideas that goes along with an honest and thorough assessment of government and society can’t compete with grainy black and white images that make a candidate look like a dorky mob boss with a flabby gut and a sinister grimace. As a result, the marketing of a presidential candidate is not much different than the marketing of toothpaste.

The birth of the 24 hour news cycle has given much greater breadth to presidential coverage, but sadly little more in the way of depth, which can be a ratings disaster. The endless repetition of rehearsed catch phrases and nasty personal attacks has forced serious discussion farther out onto the blogosphere where few take note. Politics now occupies a cultural realm somewhere between advertising and reality television. The only hope is in producing a more historically, economically, and civicly discerning electorate. But current trends are not promising on that front.

Winston Churchill once famously said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I tend to agree. Perhaps it is foolish that a large monolithic nation state can long exist under a benign and well run government. If that is the case, then the idea for decentralized power and competitive government deserves more consideration.

Let’s suppose that more power rested with states, or even municipalities, and that these more autonomous regions could have much more freedom in creating competing versions of the ideal society. People could then cast much more meaningful votes, the most important one being the ability to pick and move to regions that reflected their own values. Governments would then rise or fall depending on the efficacy of their policies and their society’s ability to attract and retain productive people. In such an environment, bad government would be quickly self-defeating.