Chapter 3 Electoral Imperatives: Election Campaigns
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 3.1
The cornerstone of existing “democracies” is supposed to be “free and fair elections.” The actual ruling or governing is done by elected partisans and their appointees. This hierarchical specialization, in which an elite few govern, effectively excludes the public from any meaningful process of deliberation or policy decision making. The role of the general public is, by and large, limited to the fleeting participation of voting for, or against, those who will govern them. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau famously said the English people who got to elect members of parliament mistakenly believed themselves to be free, yet “as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing.”
Bernard Manin, author of The Principles of Representative Democracy, aptly refers to the restriction of political endeavor to elections alone as “audience democracy.” This is the reality of electoral politics, even if the commercial media did not exacerbate the problem by reducing political news coverage to what some have called superficial “politainment.” Even for that small minority who feel that they are deeply involved in grass-roots politics, participation is generally limited to the trivial posting of lawn signs or distribution of brochures, with the crafting of the “message” (let alone the underlying policy) being left to the elites and professionals. Indeed, in many Congressional campaigns, even the candidates themselves are not involved in deciding on issues and message. This detail is often turned over to hired campaign consultants, with the candidates merely retaining veto power. These campaign professionals recognize the marketing principle that, during a campaign you can’t really engage in deliberation or education. As a candidate myself, I learned that the winning strategy is to say what voters want to hear – things that they already think they know and agree with. Identifying and turning out supportive voters, while suppressing turnout of other voters, completes the strategy.
Electoral politics slides irresistibly towards the art, (and now science, as I will discuss in a later chapter) of finding the most effective emotional hot buttons and “wedge issues” to corral a plurality of voters, from the pool of those citizens who are still willing to vote. And this pool is a minority of adults in most elections in the U.S. It does no good to plead with, berate or cajole candidates to run upstanding issues-based campaigns. Candidates and their advisers recognize that as a recipe for defeat. As John Gastil notes in By Popular Demand,
“The point here is that such behavior is not irrational, but rather an honest attempt by campaigns to tailor their messages to the reality of the American political environment. [As voter alienation grows and participation declines, civic skills atrophy.] To put it mildly, the American electoral process does not appear to be a self-correcting system.”
My home state of Vermont is small enough that most state legislative races are not dependent on TV, radio, or other electronic media. But even in this grassroots door-to-door campaign environment, electoral politics is incredibly superficial. Campaigns have almost nothing to do with presenting thoughtful policy proposals, nor marshaling superior arguments.
I recall knocking on a door during one re-election campaign and having an older woman open it tentatively. I explained that I was her representative, and was running for re-election. She squinted at me for a moment, and then said, “I recognize you, you’re one of those singers!” At that time I was a member of a local amateur a cappella group that performed doo-wop rock and roll. This woman had seen us doing a pass-the-hat performance in downtown Burlington, and had enjoyed the show. We chatted briefly about her favorite early rock songs, but never discussed any politics. As I clambered down the steps from her porch, she eagerly promised to vote for me in the upcoming election.
Some issues may play a role during a primary election within a political party. But even then, rather than policy issues, the dominant “issues” are frequently whether the candidate projects a positive image, seems self-confident, or polling indicates the candidate is “electable.” While Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential primary campaign was anything but typical in many respects, the back seat given to substantive policy matters, while highlighting a few symbolic issues, was typical. In general elections, candidates often simply seek to present themselves in a favorable light, leaving a positive impression with voters.
When I would campaign for re-election, my goal was to show my smiling face at every door, with some stock phrase that indicated I was on the side of the voter against the establishment. If I asked what issues the voter was concerned about, I would generally get a hesitant stare, or occasionally hear about some issue that the office I was seeking had no authority to deal with. Unlike many readers of this book, most citizens, and indeed most active voters, don’t think much about politics or public policy at all, and don’t have ready responses to such questions. Indeed, this is also a weakness of most public opinion surveys, which squeeze respondents into the available standard responses based on their off-the-top-of-the-head “opinions.” For decades politicians knew that in most circumstances it is safer to ask for voters’ opinions or spout platitudes, than present any potentially controversial opinions of their own (which may alienate some voters). Most candidates wanted to be known as “the candidate who listens,” regardless of whether the voters had anything to say at the moment.
In recent years, however, an alternative campaign strategy has come to the fore. More extreme candidates in a more polarized environment have stopped trying to appeal to the “median voter” altogether. Instead of seeking to avoid alienating voters, they discount wide swaths of the electorate, and instead focus on animating their base with extremist rhetoric. Since most adults, especially moderates, don’t vote in most elections, this “revving up the base” strategy often works through targeted turnout efforts.
My legislative district was a compact urban rental neighborhood within Burlington, Vermont. I could easily walk from one side of it to the other. Campaign techniques naturally change with scale, especially once a campaign becomes dependent on mass media and paid advertising. However, the fundamental shallowness of the campaigns remains the same. Once districts become too large for a candidate to knock on every door in order to create a personal impression, party labels become a dominant factor. Voters commonly state with pride that they “vote for the person, not the party.” In reality, the sheer number of offices that are subject to election in the U.S. means that very few voters know much of anything about most candidates, other than their party, gender and maybe ethnicity gleaned from their name.
Politics based on sortition rather than election could bring substantive policy deliberation to the fore — perhaps not within society at large, but among those citizens tasked with making a particular decision. Since electoral advantage would no longer be the dominant force among decision makers, the incentive to seek out relative trivia to impugn the motives of opponents, which derives from the need to prepare for the next election, would be gone.