I typically ignore political campaign commercials. It's time to go to the refrigerator, or hit the mute button, or change the channel. But the other day I saw an Obama ad featuring the president himself. Speaking simply and directly, he discussed the choice American voters have in November, contrasting his own view with Mitt Romney's on how to rehabilitate the American economy. The Obama campaign refers to the ad as "The Choice."
It's not a negative ad; just a matter-of-fact, easily digestible summary of the differences between them. Romney believes the economic elite -- very successful, very rich people -- are the engine of the economy. Obama thinks public investment can jump-start an economic recovery based in the middle class.
Now, that's a good ad, I thought. The next day I saw Romney being interviewed on NBC, at the Olympics. When questioned about the negative tone of the presidential race so far, Romney replied that his focus was on the economy: "not personal attacks, but policy differences." That's about the same tone as the Obama ad. Way to go, I thought.
So why isn't this what we generally get from these candidates, and from their respective parties? 'm not a political professional, so I'm not privy to their private strategy sessions. Instead, I'm a researcher; I look at structural differences between the parties and their constituencies, and draw conclusions from there. So, here's my take on it.
As a structural matter, there have traditionally been more voters registered Democratic than Republican, while Republicans have more money. As a minority party, the Republicans have had to use "big picture," expensive, long-distance campaigns to make up for their lack of troops on the ground, but they have the money to do so.
Republican "trickle down" theories of economic development have no mass appeal, so they use "wedge" social issues to sell their economic program: race, abortion, immigration, religion, sexual orientation, and the like. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used these strategies to great advantage. These approaches require that the Republicans feed their base a steady diet of red meat: negative images of minorities, immigrants, gays, atheists, "politically correct" liberals, socialists and communists. So, lots of attack ads.
But what about the Democrats? They have greater numbers. Why do they go negative? It's not just to counter-attack.
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), born out of Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections, was launched to create a national "air" campaign capability to match the Republicans. The DLC looked to the center-right for the money they needed -- corporations and wealthy individuals. To be credible with these new donors, they had to distance themselves from their base -- minorities, unions, and old-fashioned liberals -- but they figured they wouldn't lose these people. Where would they go? Embrace scary Republican right-wingers? These strategies got Bill Clinton elected, and eventually Barack Obama.
The Democrats focused more and more on Republican-style air campaigns and less and less on grassroots operations. At the same time, union membership dwindled as manufacturing jobs left the country (under both Republican and Democratic policies). Minority and women's organizations became more and more professionalized, with increasingly tenuous connections to their own constituencies.
With their wires to the base no longer hot to the touch, Democrats now have to use negative ads to rile supporters up for the elections, depicting the Republicans as the agents of greed, excess, radical social conservatism and disregard for the middle class. Of course that's not a hard sell, given the "red meat" the Republicans have to dish out to their own base.
But if you're not a die-hard partisan, the political playing field looks more and more like a public schoolyard, with the bullies on one side and the geeks on the other, calling each other names. (The bullies wear red, the geeks wear blue.) Both sides make lots of promises, but once elections are over those promises seem to fade. There isn't much trickling down on the Republican side, and public investment for the Democrats seems to mean bailing out banks and private corporations.
Sure, governing is hard, and compromises have to be made. But it's also a question of who's at the table when negotiations take place, and that's generally not you and me. Instead, there is a multi-billion dollar lobbying industry that represents people who can pay for those services. This helps create an essential difference between elections and governance. Elections are for the many, governance for the few.
To be fair, this is not far from the original Federalist vision of the Founding Fathers. They saw America as a republic, not a democracy. We, the masses, would be governed by people who are better than we are and smarter than we are. It's not strictly speaking an aristocracy -- we get to hold them accountable every two, four or six years. Given the amount of damage that can be done during such time periods today, however, we need to have many more ways to hold politicians accountable than we do at present. Emails and letters won't do the trick.
I applaud those who seek to restore the balance with campaign finance reform, third party movements and the like. But none of these approaches overcome the fact that most people are excluded from the processes of democratic deliberation.
My earlier posts on Citizen's Assemblies speak to a means available, rooted in our "anti-Federalist" past, that might help. Through the Assemblies, civil society could engage in deliberative processes above the level of our present political discourse, and speak with a stronger, clearer voice. I see the Assemblies as an attractive counterweight to a public debate carried on exclusively by professionals who know us only through polls and focus groups, then push our buttons with attack ads. Citizen's Assemblies provides us with a very different kind of choice.