Say the word stapler. Say it again. Say it 595 more times. Are you still confident that a stapler is even a real thing?
By the time all was said and done, the 2016 Presidential Election took 597 days. From Ted Cruz’s announcement that he was seeking the nomination in March of 2015, the American news cycle has been dominated by the campaign for the highest office in the land. According to Emma Roller at the New York Times, in this amount of time 4 Mexican, 7 Canadian, 14 British or Australian and a truly astounding 41 French elections could have been held. So, is nearly two years choosing a President time well spent?
Not according to Dana D. Nelson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, who claims that America’s obsession with the president has adverse effects on the democratic process. In her 2008 book, Bad For Democracy, Nelson identifies something she calls ‘presidentialism’ and credits it with separating people from the government they are actually electing. In the introduction to her book she says:
“Presidentialism works against people’s civic cultivation of democratic skills. It trains us to want the president to take care of democracy for us instead of remembering that democracy, properly defined, is our job.”
She goes on to say that to the American people the president has become more of a superhero than a political functionary. The cult of the presidency has become so entrenched in the American political psyche that most Americans cannot identify what the role of the president actually is, instead viewing them as some sort of supreme leader with murky powers, guiding policy and getting things done.
In reality, the president has pretty limited powers, as evidenced by the Obama administrations relative inability to accomplish any of their legislative goals. The president receives foreign dignitaries, nominally commands the army, consults the legislature and appoints people to government jobs. That’s about it. Sometimes they get to veto a bill. I don’t mean to understate this – the president is arguably the most influential person in the world – but the apparatus of the United States government extends well beyond the responsibilities of the president. It’s complicated and there are many choices to make come election day. This is where the long election becomes a problem.
First, the marathon election season generates voter fatigue. People are simply tired of hearing about the election, tired of the rhetoric and the politicking, they begin to (just like you did if you actually tried saying stapler) lose a sense of what it all means. They lose confidence that this decision will have any consequences and they begin to see the whole system as a big, corrupt, popularity contest. In fact, a 2015 Gallup poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe that there is “widespread corruption” in the American government.
How could they not?
Given the immensity of the campaign, only America’s richest and best-connected can run for office. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has raised $1.3 billion, with Donald Trump’s coming in at $795 million. As a point of reference, Canada’s 2015 election cost a grand total of $375 million and people were up in arms about the outrageous spending. With so much money being funneled into making a person president, the connection to vested interest is not hard to make. The business of getting elected in America is just that – a business.
A business that feeds on a two-year beauty pageant that sells newspapers and cable subscriptions while leaving candidates dangerously susceptible to being bought and sold. Is this how democracy really works?
Another downside to the huge campaign season is that people are underinformed about local races. Sure, you may know that Anthony Weiner’s computer had 650,000 emails connected to Hillary on it, but do you know who is running for State Comptroller on your ballot? Do you know what a State Comptroller does? I didn’t. You can read about them here. Turns out only some states have them and only some are elected directly but the point is that I didn’t know that and nothing in the news cycle was going to help me know that. They were going to keep telling me that Donald Trump is a dick and Hillary Clinton is boring.
Nevermind that you also have to choose a senator, representative, state representative and in many districts have to vote on reforms, elect judges, and whatever else might be tacked on to the ballot. There is so much information out there to be got but the huge budgets of marathon candidates dominate the discussion.
This is where I think what Nelson says is most useful: democracy is our job. We can change the way things work. We can do what Argentina does and make the election 60 days long by law. We could get crazy and limit it to 12 days like they do in Japan, where they also forbid television advertisement and give each candidate equal, free ads in print media. We could follow Canada’s example and cap what each part can spend on campaigning. There are many better options available to us.
And the best part? To effect this change all we have to do is be better at democracy. We have to elected representatives and senators who would like to see this kind of change. Who would like to cut down on the noise and the advertising and get down to the business of actually running a country. Not just the business of getting elected to run it.