Sunday, February 7, 2016

Modern electioneering

Most of the time, when we vote, we vote for representatives. Voting on referenda is fairly rare and many of them are not binding on the legislature. We give different justifications for having a representative democracy. Most often people say we do this because there are so many of us and we cannot all get together to legislate. Therefore we have to give the job of legislating to a small number of people and pay them so that they have the time to frame the laws the country needs.

This, actually, does not work out. These days elected representatives spend 30 or more hours a week asking for money, raising campaign funds, soliciting donations--the larger the better--to their political bank account. There is not  much time left for legislating.

Another reason for representative institutions weighed heavily with the authors of the Constitution and other theorists. Some people, the framers thought, are much better equipped to legislate than others. There are some specially gifted, sage, and politically perceptive persons whom the rest of the electorate chooses to run the country. Not all of us are well suited to make laws and policies. But all of us have enough insight and knowledge to choose the persons best suited to be legislators.

What would such candidates for public office be like? Quite obviously they would be persons seriously concerned about the well-being of their fellow citizens and of the country as a whole. They should not be particularly interested in their own popularity, and how people think about them. They should certainly not be willing to fight for being elected. The legislative representatives we want should focus on our well-being and on the well-being of the country. Getting elected should never be their primary concern. If they are not chosen, they will be glad to see that somebody else even more competent has been selected.

Electoral campaigns, today, are quite different. Everybody considers them as contests in which some lose and some win. Running for election is more like running a business and trying to force one's competitors into bankruptcy. Or it is like a sporting event in which there is one winning team at the end of the season and all the others lose.

However critical I may be of politicians and government bureaucrats who, together, run the country, I have no doubt that I would not be competent to do their job in their place. I sometimes imagine myself being elected to Congress or to run a government agency and being totally unable to decide what needed to be done and how I was supposed to go about it. The people we elect must have certain competences which most of us do not have.

One competence that is clearly necessary is to cooperate in positive ways with other elected officials and officials appointed to the administration. If the different branches of the government do not work together, a great deal of time, energy, and money will be wasted and very little accomplished. The poisoning of the water in Flint Michigan is a horrifying example of that.

Candidates that are out to win the election do not promise to be good cooperators. They may be brave fighters or they may be people who fight dirty but they do not promise to run the country cooperatively as it needs to be run.
Candidates running to win are under tremendous pressure to be less than completely honest. They exaggerate their own qualifications and tell lies about their competitors. Persons who are willing to bend the truth for their own advantage do not promise to be good promoters of what is good for the people as a whole. They are not prepared to serve because their own interest is always threatening to overwhelm their dedication to the public good.

Candidates who are willing two spend two years or more saying "Me, Me, Me, Me!" must have powerfully egos and be largely focused on themselves, on their own desires and needs. Will they have the energy and attention to dedicate themselves to the people who voted for them and even to the people who voted against them?

Yes, at some point the campaign is over. People vote and somebody is elected. But if we consider the process preceding the elections it is extremely unlikely that the candidates that emerge will be servants of the people rather than servants of themselves.

Sometimes we get good presidents--albeit not very often--and we are really lucky. More lucky than we deserve. If we had any sense, the people who are shouting "Me, Me, Me, Me!" the loudest should be automatically disqualified. The people who are willing to spend billions on getting elected should not be considered.

The candidate that should be selected is the one who offers him or herself for a particular office but who refuses to engage in the self-aggrandizing speechifying that we expect from our candidates. It must be someone who is modest, who would be horrified to brag of past accomplishments as our current candidates do every day. That person must be profoundly public spirited, not a raving egomaniac like most of our candidates.