Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's Sinking Faster Than Our Economy?

The answer, alas, is our nation's democratic process.

In the wake of the wave of collapses and bailouts that has hit the U.S. economy in the last few weeks, the ties of both presidential candidates to lobbyists and to the companies that have so suddenly and brutally risen to the forefront of American politics have come under increasingly intense scrutiny.

The truth is that while the degree of each candidate's involvement with each collapsed company varies, and each campaign accuses the other of being more and more egregiously enmeshed in the corrupt dealings of Washington, very little attention is being given to the fact that as long as the election system is built to confer an advantage on he (or she) who raises and spends the most money, it is naive to expect politicians to live ethically squeaky-clean lives and to refuse all money thrown at them by special interests (of all kinds, not just of the corporate kind).

In the United States, elections in general, and presidential elections in particular, have become an extremely demoralizing process for people who have any use for intellect. The media focus their reporting on all things controversial, rather than on substance. This practice has become so pervasive that campaign appearances have been transformed into a hit-parade of sound-byte material, because candidates know that they need to make statements 5 to 15 seconds long that will be repeated by media outlets over and over and over again. Sarcastic comments are rewarded way beyond substantive remarks for their ability to instantaneously focus the attention of viewers, readers, and listeners. Discussion of one's proposals are often left intentionally fuzzy, so as not to provide an opponent's campaign with the ability to twist one's message.

More troubling than anything else, the ability to outspend one's opponent has become an essential element for any campaign, because it increases the number of ads that a campaign can run. A candidate's message is reinforced not because of its inherent value, but by mere repetition. Political ads are more often than not designed to spread misinformation, doubt, and--in the most egregious cases--lies about a candidate's opponent(s), not to mention fear. (A famous example is the "pack of wolves" ad that the Bush campaign ran in 2004 against John Kerry.) Ads are particularly detrimental to the democratic process because they allow no immediate rebuttal by the candidate targeted by the ads. They are the very antithesis of democratic discourse because they disproportionately reward a type of politics based on negative attacks.

Opponents of this type of money-driven politics often refer to the need to replace the current election financing system, which relies above all on a candidate's ability to raise inordinate sums of money, with public campaign financing, as if by merely substituting one source of funding for another would give us back a democracy where good ideas are rewarded rather than the basest, most reptilian instincts of the voting public.

Don't get me wrong: I support public campaign financing, if for no other reason that it would allow people with good ideas but low fund-raising ability to enter into the electoral arena, and we are in dire need of fresh ideas and perspectives. Nonetheless, we should consider taking some other measures, even quite drastic ones, if we really want to elevate our political discourse above the level of a mere race between people.

Banning Political Ads
I am firmly convinced that the first step in bringing the campaign process back to some sort of balance would be a total ban on political ads, for a number of reasons.

First of all, they debase the electoral process, which should be regarded as the most sacred institution of a democracy, to the level of a commercial product. Arguably, that is what elections have become. The stakes are so high that supporters of one candidate or another have a vested interest in "selling" their candidate to the public. However, the deleterious effect on the democratic process of effectively reducing a candidate to a marketable product can hardly be underestimated.

Also, it is harder to convey positive messages in the time usually allocated for an ad (30 seconds), and it is even harder to make them memorable, which is why so many ads take the opposite approach and are used to attack an opponent (with only the possibility of a deferred rebuttal). As we are told time and time again to justify the disgusting negative campaign almost all politicians run, negative ads work.

Lastly, a particularly disquieting aspect of TV ads is the fact that images can convey quasi-subliminal messages that can appeal to voters' worst prejudices and instincts, not to their reason or to higher ideals. Just to take the latest example, without seeking to criminalize Sen. McCain, one of his latest campaign ads juxtaposes images of Sen. Obama with a former Fannie Mae executive, Frank Raines, to establish a connection between the presidential candidate and the collapse of Fannie Mae. Nothing wrong with that, right? In fact, it seems that the ad is designed not only to establish a connection between Sen. Obama and the Fannie Mae collapse, but also (some say mainly) to play on some voters' racial bias and fears.

Banning Opinion Polls
Next, I believe polls should be banned as well. Not all uses of polls, or all types of polls, mind you. For example, campaigns should be allowed to run their own polls to gather data about how their candidate and his or her opponents are doing. Exit polls should be allowed, particularly for their value in identifying problems with the way elections have been conducted (they are often used by international organizations in new or particularly frail democracies to monitor election results.) These concessions having been granted, polls should neither be treated as news items nor, with rare exceptions, they should be afforded the status of a science. They are neither news nor science. Too often their power of manipulation exceeds all other positive considerations.

From a news-worthiness standpoint, they only manifest purpose they serve is to excite the public into viewing the election as a race, a quasi-sporting event, or an entertainment phenomenon.

From a scientific point of view, polls are anything but scientific. Suffice it to say that on any given day different polls can put a different candidate in the lead, often with widely varying margins. Different news organizations are affiliated with different polling outfits. Why? In a best case scenario, to provide an exclusive service to its readers/viewers/listeners. In an Orwellian word, to serve their special interest and to manipulate public opinion in expecting a certain result on election day.

Polls are rather an art than science. Their accuracy depends on a number of factors, including the size and the demographic of the polling sample, the polling methodology, what questions the polls is seeking to answer, and how such questions are phrased. All these elements are components of pollster bias. In this sense, polls have a high potential for subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation.

Again, I am not saying that polls have no place in society. But using them as news items does not serve the public's interest, and--in the worst-case scenario--has the potential to intentionally mislead the public. Therefore, any organization that wants to run a poll should be free to do so, as long as poll results are kept under lock and key until after the election.

TV And Radio Rules
Networks and cable channels are licensed organizations. These public licensees are authorized to broadcast by we, the people (through the FCC), in consideration for "public interest, convenience, or necessity." In exchange, they should be obligated to provide a certain number of free airtime hours to candidates and political parties during the electoral season. That is the price they have to pay for the privilege of being awarded a license by the American public. The price of politics would plummet and the balance of politics would shift back to a system that rewards ideas, instead of financial might.

Limiting The Influence Of Special Interest And 527 Committees
Special interests (like 527 committees such as the Swiftboat Veterans, the AARP, etc, the AFL-CIO) who desire to purchase airtime to promote a certain point of view can only do so in the context of a program where the campaign or other special interest group that is being attacked has access to equal time for rebutting the accusations (and/or proposals) of the 527 committee that has initiated the request for airtime.

Naturally, special interests will throw all of their financial and organizational weight against such a change. They will defend the idea, which I hold to be baseless as it relates to the political process, that money equals free speech (the implication being that since the right to free speech is practically limitless, so is the amount of money that an entity should be able to invest in spreading its message). Though money does buy free speech, it is not the same as free speech. If it were we'd have a plutocracy, not a democracy. (That in fact we might already be a plutocracy is a topic for another post.)

Taking The Best From The Rest
Other countries, even ones where the political scene is no less polarized than in the United States, have established different rules for how elections must be conducted, aimed at safeguarding civil discourse and at protecting the integrity of the electoral process.

Here are a few examples of how different countries handle the electoral process.

In Italy, a tenet of the electoral law is "par-condicio". Among the most interesting aspects of par-condicio" are the following:

  • Poll results cannot be divulged to the public in the 15 days preceding election day.
  • Equal treatment, in terms of time and spaces, must be guaranteed to all political parties.
  • Time for political information and messaging must be provided by public licensees (tv and radio stations) free of charge.
  • Political ads on radio and TV are only allowed during some dedicated broadcasts.

In Denmark, "the guidelines of the "Danish Radio and Television" (a national public service station) ensure all registered political parties equal access to pre-election programmes on radio and television. The parties in question (no matter how small) are given equal time free of charge to present their manifestos, etc. to the public. Advertisements by political parties on national and regional Danish radio and television channels are not permitted." (See

You can check out some interesting facts about how a number of other countries handle access to political information and messaging via this link.

There are several things that a civilized country can do to protect the electoral process.

Because ads and polls have been used so widely and, arguably, so successfully, even when their use is antithetical to the public interest, we have come to accept them as an integral part of the electoral process, a necessary evil. They are not. Their detrimental influence is recognized in other countries, and for that reason they have been banned or subjected to strict rules limiting their availability to the public.

Equal treatment of all political subject is an essential safeguard for the integrity of the democractic process. This principle should be valid not only during general elections, but also during primaries (to prevent, for example, the situation that occurred during the Democratic and Republican debates where certain candidates had the lion share of airtime, while others were largely ignored or had to answer different, even trivial, questions.) To prevent the number of candidates from ballooning in the early stages of the primaries, parties could set up certain entry mechanisms (for example, candidates would have to collect a certain number of signatures in support of their candidacy to be allowed to enter the primary process.)

Access to airtime, both on radio and tv, should be free for political parties. It would be the civic dute of broadcasters to reserve a certain amount of air time for political broadcasts in exchange for the privilege of being allowed to broadcast with public licenses.

Within newscasts, candidates and their surrogates should receive the same amount of coverage. This should be a condition for a station to be able to maintain its publicly awarded license. Outside newscasts, all candidates would receive a certain amount of time for their messaging, to be used in blocks of a set duration. So, for example, each candidate would be allowed a daily slot of five minutes during prime time for every day leading up to the election. The five minute slot may be increased as election day approaches, and may increase, for example, to half an hour on the Sunday before the election, with Monday being a day of national "meditation" (no airtime for any candidate). No other political messages would be allowed until the last polling stations in the nation have closed.

A combination of these or other safeguards may succeed in giving our democratic process a new beginning, one that would move us away from the corrupt and demoralizing status quo and that might restore our hopes for the future of our democracy.

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