That Primary Thing

10/24/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

The way Americans select candidates and run elections is the least appealing part of our democracy. Its defects are notorious: excruciatingly long and drawn out; the American Idol stress on the superficial and cosmetic; novelty of form as a substitute for originality of thought; too many take literally the ideal that in America anyone can become President, the substitution of money driven advertising campaigns for issue based campaigns; the premature choice of party nominees in a calendar driven by small state chauvinism; this disenfranchisement of primary voters in such remote places as California, New York, Texas and Ohio. If we had tried to try to foist such an illogical system on Iraq or Afghanistan, we rightly would be accused of reckless frivolity. Yet we plod through the exercise time after time without any consideration of amelioration. It only gets worse and worse.

What's needed is a route and branch critical review of how we do things with the aim of reconstituting the 'system' from scratch based on some measure of logic. Of course, we are too immature polity to even consider doing that. So here is a list of palliative measures that may alleviate what ails the American body politic.

  • Anyone petitioning to appear on the ballot must pass a 6th grade Social Studies test: Sample questions: identify on a map all places where the United States currently is at war: Paul Revere was a British double agent - True or False?; child labor laws are the primary cause of youth unemployment -True or False?
  • Require that at least 3 of the first 5 primaries be held in states that are home to a major league sports franchise.
  • Require that reporters not travel on candidates' leased planes or feed themselves at candidates' expense.
  • Prohibit U.S. flag lapel pins. Instead, each candidate shall wear a pin representing his five biggest campaign contributors; e.g. Goldman Sachs; American Cattleman's Association; Health America; Koch Enterprises; Boeing
  • Require each candidate to provide an oral explanation of derivative, Collateralized Debt Obligations, and Credit Default Swaps
  • Require each candidate to explain how the Social Security Trust fund is independent of the Treasury's revenues/expenditures budget
  • Limit Presidential debates to six topics and then allow the candidates to duke it out in rounds of 20 minutes each without interference.
  • Limit political T.V. advertising spots to breaks in sports broadcasts
  • In each primary 'question & answer' show, reserve the first two questions for journalists from out of state.
  • Media should publish poll data in their Amusement Sections
  • Require media outlets to show primetime reruns of the Kennedy-Nixon debates so as to remind the citizenry as to how low standards have sunk
  • Require fact-checking stories to be the lead after every debate
  • Ask each candidate: by what measures could we declare victory in the 'war on terror?'