Thursday, January 5, 2012

Demand-Side Political Reform

Yesterday I was thinking about the interminable nature of modern political campaigns - focusing especially on the blizzard of inane television advertisements that accompany almost any serious race for national office. Most folks despise these ads. They also hate the mailers, the radio spots, and the robo-calls. Yet we're told that candidates need these weapons to win their campaigns.

One result - beyond the barrage of annoying ads - is a political system that compels politicians to cater to powerful interests who can bundle together insane amounts of money to purchase all those campaign spots. For members of the U.S. House who face two-year terms, that means a perpetual campaign. From their first day in office, each representative must begin raising money for the next election. Senators and presidents may enjoy more breathing room, but they are hardly freed from the demands of fundraising. Someday soon, they'll need to run new spots that cost money. Lots of money.

And while individual donations are limited by law, a plethora of soft money sources ensure that special interests are free to raise the stakes year after year. You can bet that the Supreme Court's recent decision allowing corporations to throw virtually unlimited amounts of money into the system rigs the game even more against us. It's an arms race, with each campaign raising the stakes to unfathomable heights. Thus this year's presidential election alone could cost over two billion dollars - much of that money meant to buy ads that no one wants.

How can we disarm this crazy political system?

A supply-side solution would mandate public financing for all campaigns, requiring candidates to restrict their spending to those limits, kind of like ensuring that each side in a war starts with the same number of weapons. Such an approach may sound "fair," but few serious candidates would consider that option these days, particularly with all that soft money sloshing around. Moreover, a supply-side restriction would run afoul of constitutional free speech provisions (especially in today's judicial climate).

The larger problem, though, is not the financing of ads but rather the ads themselves. Fewer ads, or the same number of ads per candidate, fails to address this issue. Typically built to shove carefully calibrated soundbites into 30- or 60-second increments, most campaign spots trade reasoned discourse for bumper sticker thinking. They work that way because campaign advisors tell their candidates that people will not tolerate more thoughtful forms of discourse.

If those advisors are correct, if we will not sit still long enough to consider all the arguments for one candidate over another, if we're willing to suffer the onslaught of ads that we actually hate, then perhaps we deserve our dysfunctional government: a rigged game where practical, moderate, bipartisanship is abandoned as politicians chase the money to pump ever more shrill, ever more ubiquitous advertisements into our lives.

But what if the political hacks are wrong? What if we chose to expect thoughtful discourse from our candidates, vowing not to tolerate the television spots, the radio blather, and the robo-attacks? What if we initiated a demand-side solution? The idea I offer may sound naive, it might appear overly simplistic, and it will surely need substantial refinement. But it promises at least some improvement over our current mess.

Tomorrow: I'll share some specifics on a plan to disarm from this pointless war.

1 comment:

Jenny Wood said...

Ok that's just mean! I've been waiting since yesterday! You're such a tease.