It’s only January, but if you’re like me you’re already sick of the election which is still more than nine months away. Our political system is in permanent campaign mode. But we’re not selecting a president, we’re selecting a celebrity. It’s not something we can afford to do this time around.
There was a time when for all its faults politics was conducted in a political fashion. Not every word ever uttered by anyone was captured for posterity, so the fact that politicians, being people, are imperfect did not figure overarchingly into it. Political organizations chose delegates, usually by state conventions, who went to the national convention where they chose candidates for president and vice president. The picture was not always pretty — in fact, it usually wasn’t — but it came nowhere near the absurdity that we have now.
Consider: Iowa conducts a couple of events, the “straw poll” and the “caucuses,” which are devoid of any actual meaning but which get that state into the news as it otherwise hasn’t been since Feb. 3, 1959, when a small plane crashed near Spirit Lake, killing the pilot plus Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.
This is followed by the New Hampshire primary, which is also, when you look at the numbers, inconsequential. It is lovely as a quaint tradition but ridiculous when taken as a matter of political import.
New Hampshire is followed by an ever-battling-for-position number of state primaries, each with its own rules and few that are comparable to each other. Some are limited to party members while some are not, allowing persons during the year to vote for a candidate they have no intention of supporting in November: the most basic of political dirty tricks.
That’s bad enough, but it’s only the beginning.
We now have a monstrosity called “daily tracking polls” which are treated as big news. But they’re not. They convert the process into a sporting event. We might have our favorites in sports, but they do not in the final analysis have much effect on our daily lives. If our team or jockey or boxer or whatever loses, we might be sad, but the lights stay on, the paycheck continues, and we have supper. There is also the phenomenon whereby, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the presence of the camera alters the picture. In this case, it means that the existence of the polls alters the outcome of the polls. The nature of some people is a desire to back the winner just because he or she is the winner. (Thank goodness no one believed Charlie Sheen, or he’d be frontrunner right now.)
It took work, but even this sorry situation — too many primaries, way too many polls — has been made worse still.
It might be thought of as the American Idolization of our process for selecting candidates for president. The system comprises a ridiculously large number of “debates,” in which candidates are trotted out and supposedly all given their say on the issues of the day. That some of the candidates are barely heard from makes no difference, because this is not about politics. It is entertainment. The successful “debater” learns to say outrageous things or make wild accusations or speak in sound bites of 20 seconds or less for inclusion in news broadcasts later. It has nothing to do with who the candidate is, what he or she stands for, or why we might want to have him or her running the country.
Proof of this is the wild swings in popularity that are manifested in the results of the next batch of opinion polls and the primary that follows any given debate. We’re selecting candidates based not on ideas or political skills or policies, but on glibness. When a debate — any debate in which no candidate announces he wishes to destroy the country, say — results in a 20-point swing in voter sentiment, that debate has too much influence. It has been argued, and not just humorously, that Richard Nixon was defeated in 1960 by his 5-o’clock shadow, because it rendered him shady looking in the otherwise largely content-free presidential debates. (That was the first year we had presidential debates. It is worth noting that the country had somehow struggled through for 171 years without them.)
We have allowed ourselves to get pushed into a situation where much of our future governance is determined not by statesmanship but by entertainment value. A steady stream of morning-line-like poll results fill newscasts, enabling newscasters to breathlessly give the easy story instead of troubling to learn about and report upon the more difficult one — the one in which the substance of the candidates is covered.
Advocates would say that this is good, that it “opens up” the process, that it involves the voters more, and on and on. They are, whether or not they know it, blowing smoke.
That smoke would better be returned to the rooms it once filled, where politicians, from hack to statesman, slugged it out, made deals (thereby honing negotiation skills that are useful among those who govern), and selected what were, over all, not a bad batch of presidential candidates.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.