I know, right? It’s one of the fundamentals of our democracy, ain’t it? Campaigning is at the very heart of the American experiment. It is emblematic of some of our most cherished freedoms—Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly in particular.
Okay, I hear your cries of distress at the thought of eliminating all political campaigns but bear with me. Doesn’t campaigning have a dark side? A really, really dark side? I mean, is it something we all universally love? Or is it more like a necessary evil that we have learned to thinly tolerate?
Let’s jot down a quick list. What are the dynamics that go into campaigning?
Back in the day, the founders might have imagined a gentleman farmer ‘tossing his hat in the ring’ and having just as much of a chance as anyone else of representing the other citizens of his district (or, at least, the other gentleman farmers of his district). But we all know that ship has sailed. If that ship ever even left the dock. Or was able to float. Long before you or I ever hear the name of a candidate, they have been vetted and groomed by political parties and big-money donors. Which makes sense because…
It costs a lot of money to run for congress—you need to bank at least a million dollars. And while that’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things, it’s still a lot of money for a homemaker from Poughkeepsie (or some other regular person). It’s a very expensive hat to be tossing around. Especially when the odds, on average, are greater than fifty-percent that you’ll lose.
So, there is the need to raise funds to run, which has lead to endless headaches. And there’s a gnawing contradiction that undergirds the whole enterprise. The candidate must pledge to objectively serve the needs of the constituents. And yet, they may be entirely funded by a small subset of those constituents who have egocentric demands and a glaringly obvious pathway to getting them met–namely, giving a politician tons of money–regardless of whether the resulting body of laws is good or bad for the rest of the country.
Let’s face it, when it comes to the question, “Is my candidate basically a puppet?” we mostly cross our fingers and hope it isn’t true, or, if it is, not completely true, or that maybe sometimes the needs of the not-so-well-monied are being served, well enough? Pretty please?
Campaigns are also tied up with political party politics. If you choose to run for office, and your politics don’t fit neatly into one camp or the other (which is true for most Americans, by the way) then you either need to conform your views to the party in order to tap into the powerful campaign machinery at their disposal, or run as an independent, and take your chances. Any political scientists want to weigh in on the odds?
Then there are the dynamics inherent in getting all those ill-informed, distracted, apathetic voters to rally around you. Just kidding (not kidding). Now, it would be great if a candidate, expressing themselves frankly and making reasoned arguments, attracted the sober consideration of all the denizens of a district, who then formulated an assessment as to whether or not to embrace said candidate.
But back here on planet earth, that is not what happens.
And here’s the thing: it’s no one’s fault, really. The dynamics at play during a campaign make honesty, from the candidate, and sober assessment, from the base, physically and psychologically impossible. To be clear, human beings are definitely capable of using their faculties to make rational decisions. But with a candidate constantly shaping and adjusting their message to anticipate what a targeted group of supporters may or may not think, and with voters treating the whole spectacle of politics as a kind of real-life version of World of Warcraft, at no moment in time does anyone have the luxury of being perfectly reasonable.
What to do, what to do?
If it were possible to get rid of campaigning altogether, that would be highly desirable. Not so much for the people who have the power to control who does and doesn’t run for office, of course. Such people might be unenthusiastic about the Death of Campaigning. But for the rest of us, it would be pretty great. Now, in order to ward off any obtuse objections, I want to make it clear we are not talking about banning campaigns. We still have our freedoms which must be preserved. It would have to be more like this: you could campaign if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t do you any good, and might even hurt your chances of getting elected if you engaged in that sort of unseemly behavior.
Wouldn’t that be nice!
Ah, me. If only there were some way to do that, to really put an end to this very unsavory, morally compromising way of selecting candidates for office, while preserving the fundamentals of our democracy. Sigh.
But there is no hope. Nope. No hope whatsoever. There has never been a solution to the dark necessity of political campaigning, and there never will be.
(Should I put a winky face after that? Nah, they’ll get it!)