It's everywhere in the news -- Super PACs are corrupting our democracy. Mitt Romney's Super PAC, "Restore Our Future," has collected over $52 million and spent $40 million pummeling his primary opponents. President Obama's Super PAC, "Priorities USA Action," has raised over $9 million and is just getting started. Karl Rove and his associates have raised $28 million for their conservative Super PAC, "American Crossroads," and their goal for the 2012 elections is to raise between $240 and $300 million. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, "As of May 15, 538 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts of $205 million and total independent expenditures of $105 million in the 2012 cycle."
Why are we concerned about this? Voting is the exclusive right of citizens who are free to vote as they please. Each of us will vote for the candidates who agree with us the most on issues, and who will best look after our interests after the election. Our democracy should be in safe hands.
Are we worried that these Super PACs will stuff our mailboxes, saturate the media, robocall voters, and actually influence the way people vote in the election? How could that be? The stuff Super PACs put out there is very shallow and short lived. Are people so uninformed about politics that they don't know what is in their best interest, or which candidate will best represent them?
As it turns out, this is a problem. Political advertising does have a significant impact on elections -- particularly negative advertising.
And political scientists have known for years that most people know very little about politics. As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson said in their book Winner-Take-All Politics, "that most voters are woefully ignorant about politics is completely uncontroversial among political scientists, and has been for decades. The survey evidence on this subject is overwhelming."
Surveys have shown that less than half of all citizens can name their U.S. Congressman/woman, and just over a quarter can name both of their state's U.S. Senators. Only about 20 percent can name their representative in their state's legislature. When people are ignorant about a subject they are highly susceptible to influence. Clearly, political advertising is effective because voters are "woefully ignorant." Perhaps the problem is not Super PACs or even money in politics at all, but rather voter ignorance.
People involved in political campaigns know that citizens make voting decisions based on extremely flimsy information. Voters often base their decision on things such as whether candidates have nice sounding names or names they recognize. They vote for candidates who look like their ideal image of a statesman and who they get the best vibe from on television. Movie stars, sports stars, comedians, war heroes and astronauts have a huge advantage in elections.
Political campaigns are marketing campaigns centered on catchy campaign slogans, creating name recognition, projecting an image of a likable persona, and targeting certain groups with carefully framed messages. Ignorant voters have to make decisions based on something -- are these things any worse than advertising by Super PACs?
What can be done about voter ignorance?
There is a wealth of information about politics and political candidates available from a wide variety of media outlets, and there has been for decades. But voters have been politically ignorant for decades. In fact, there is no reason to believe voters ever have been anything but ignorant about politics.
What we consider "politics" has come to include an enormously complex government with multiple levels and multiple branches that deal with an incredibly variety of issues. Each of us has multiple representatives to keep track of and we are constantly bombarded with news and all manner of information. Is it realistic to expect the average person to keep up with all of this well enough to make informed voting decisions? Is it realistic to expect that the average person would be interested in following issues that have no clear impact on their daily lives or in the actions of a distant government? Most people have busy lives with many other more interesting and pressing things to concern themselves with. Their political ignorance is proof of this.
If voters haven't informed themselves over the last few decades, it seems unreasonable to expect they ever will. It seems that nothing can be done about voter ignorance. Perhaps it is our expectation that citizens should be informed about politics that is the problem, rather than their ignorance.
Perhaps large-scale democracy with millions of citizens voting for candidates they've never met who will work in a government they don't understand doesn't make sense. We can cast votes in elections and the winner will run the government, but if citizens are uninformed, what's the point? Democracy will be phony. And if democracy is phony, it seems inevitable that our government and our society will be overflowing with problems.
Is there another way?
In building an advanced civilization, we have become experts at delegating. Rather than growing food and raising animals ourselves, we delegate food production to farmers and food distribution to grocery stores. In large businesses, top managers break up their responsibilities into smaller, more manageable chunks and distribute them to middle and lower level managers, delegating their responsibilities. When we have a legal problem, rather than trying to learn about the courts, the law, and legal procedures, we hire a lawyer. Delegating effectively is what enables us to maintain an advanced civilization.
In our current political system, each representative represents many thousands or millions of citizens. In this environment, two-way communication between representatives and citizens is impossible. The way we participate is with a vote -- a binary form of communication -- that we cast in elections held every few years, on a ballot with many offices. Citizens experience this huge numerical barrier and find that they are unable to realistically influence the government and become alienated, disconnected. Representatives are free to do whatever they like and accountability is limited to scandals that are reported by the news media.
Would it make sense to delegate representation more effectively as well?
In order for citizens to be truly represented, we need to be able to communicate with our representatives so we can tell them what we need and are concerned about and then hold them accountable for their actions. We also need to be able to truly get to know candidates so we can make truly informed decisions in elections. This necessitates small election districts -- such as communities the size of our existing precincts -- where community members would elect a single representative -- a community representative -- who would be delegated all political responsibilities.
In this scenario, community representatives would be responsible for getting to know candidates for office, electing them, setting their agenda, and holding them accountable. They would also be responsible for getting to know the needs and concerns of community members and for pursuing those issues in government. So that community representatives would also be part of a small group, office holders would be arranged in a hierarchy, much like managers in a business, with each level consisting of only a small number of representatives. This would create a chain of connected representatives, making two-way communication and accountability possible, connecting citizens to the government. Issues that gain support would rise to the top and become policy, while those that don't would stall.
We have thought through this approach to democracy, and have been pleasantly surprised at how much sense it makes. We call it Local Electors, which is the name we've given to the community representatives. People would be part of communities, a naturally occurring organization. We would participate in democracy by doing the most natural thing imaginable -- discussing the things that concern us with people around us -- our neighbors. Democracy would be structured like an organization, much as large businesses are. Government and society would be characterized by connectedness and the pursuit of a common public interest rather than disconnect and division. It gives us hope that there is a solution to our problems. You can learn more about it at www.localelectors.org.
When our democracy is based on unrealistic expectations for citizens, political ignorance is inevitable. When voters are ignorant, elections will inevitably be a game of influence. When elections are a game of influence, politics will revolve around money. Today there is an enormous market for influence in our society, and Super PACs are but one of many sources of influence. Influence is so thick in our society that it can be hard to distinguish between influence and reality. We live in an influence society. Do we want to be ruled by influence?