The empty election of 2012

America’s campaigns reflect a political system “fated to neither learn from history nor even remember it”.

Voters in the US were more critical of the 2012 campaign than they were of the 2008 election, says a survey [Reuters]

Americans were not happy with their presidential election. In a post-election survey by the Pew Research Center, voters thought the campaigns were more negative (68 per cent) with less discussion of issues (51 per cent) than most previous campaigns. Voters were more critical of the 2012 campaign than they were of the 2008 election. It’s hard to disagree. Why we have such empty elections is harder to figure out.

Elections restrain democratic leaders. They provide legitimate means for removing officials from power, or approve them staying there. Peacefully carrying this out remains a major challenge in much of the world. The violent demonstrations in the Arab Spring revealed political systems that had not provided peaceful methods for changing leaders. Sometimes popular unrest succeeds – Tunisia and Egypt; sometimes it doesn’t – Iran and Bahrain. 

America’s recent presidential election confirmed its leadership – Barack Obama as president, Republicans as the majority party in the House, Democrats in the Senate.

But American elections also allow a famously private people the chance to look up from the personal lives that are most important to them, and ponder the challenges facing their local and national communities. That means major issues of broad importance are being discussed. By debating these topics, not just seeking office, candidates serve their nation.

Election debates

Admittedly, one man’s vital issues are someone else’s annoying irrelevancies. To some extent, in focusing on the economy, jobs and deficit, the presidential campaigns did raise national concerns. But given the $6bn spent, long months of campaigning and the time demanded of millions by blaring paid and unpaid media coverage, one can at least wonder at the glaring absence of major issues barely mentioned; policies that a detached observer might consider important to America and the world. Here are three notable ones: 

“Elections provide legitimate means for removing officials from power, or approve them staying there.”

1. Reform of Washington politics surfaced in 2008 but not in the recent election. As a candidate, Obama was determined to “change the way Washington works”. He pointed to the problem as critical for the country: “Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.” (April 25, 2008)

It was one of the few promises that Republicans didn’t hold Obama accountable for in 2012.

No one would claim this corruption by money hasn’t continued and grown, as seen in the unprecedented dollars spent opposing the president’s proposals for healthcare and financial regulation. Paralysis in Congress, domination by special interests, too much insider influence shaping our laws – whatever the characterisation, there’s wide agreement with the president that American politics is “a broken system”. Why, how and how to fix it are questions that the people aspiring to leadership ought to be asked and ought to be answering. They weren’t.

2. Climate change barged uninvited into the campaigns the week before the election. Superstorm Sandy, by surging ashore near the nation’s corporate and media headquarters awakened some political leaders to the consequences of global warming. Suddenly, commentators noted that of the 10 warmest summers on record for the US, seven have occurred since 2000; or that Arctic ice will disappear by the summer of 2040. Ocean warming intensifies the storms over water, raises the sea level and will inevitably lead to repeated floods. Gee, maybe this is something presidential candidates should take notice of. 

The coastal cities hit by Sandy are now examining how high to build walls to protect them from the coming ocean surges. While perhaps reassuring to those behind the barriers, these are neither national nor global solutions. World representatives are in Doha this week to discuss the issue. An election would not have been a bad place for America to have this dialogue.

3. The last American troops left Iraq less than a year before the election, on December 17, 2011. President Obama quietly took credit for ending the war, but that is very different from discussing the causes, consequences and costs of the American invasion. Just on the last point, the Congressional Research Service put the financial cost at $806bn, while two respected economists taking a broader view of future items like veterans’ health and disability payments, came up with a price tag of over $3 trillion.

When the way it was paid for – by putting it on the credit card for future collection – is calculated, the war may account for over half of the country’s $16 trillion debt. Add to this the 4,400 American soldiers killed, 32,000 wounded and over 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, and the cost side of the ledger grows. Were the benefits of replacing Saddam with a semi-democratic successor regime that has allied with Iran worth the price? This could have made an interesting question in the campaign. 

Presidential campaigns

Understanding the lessons of Iraq might avoid the unhealed and decades-long wounds that followed another bitterly-dividing foreign intervention in Vietnam. Unfortunately, America’s campaigns reflect a political system fated to neither learn from history nor even remember it. 

None of these issues were debated in the election because neither side saw an advantage of raising them. Underlying this is a profound change in American elections. With the rise of large, expensive campaigns has come the need for experts to manage these complex organisations. This requires specialists in administration, media relations, advertising, polling, fundraising, voter contacts, computers, micro-targeting and of course, message strategies. These managers collectively run the campaigns. 

Old-fashioned candidacies motivated by ending a war, or promoting an ideology or reversing a decadent culture seem a bit out-of-date. Government leaders may have deep beliefs and ideals of public service, but they depend on campaign professionals to get them elected. Running for office has become another hi-tech business dominated by specialists, like much else in modern corporate America. Campaigns are not a discussion of ideas, they are an attempt to capture market share from a competitor. 

Elections as a process by which a political community participates in who should lead them, and deliberates on what policies they should support, seems quaint. Contemporary campaigns have become the marketing of yet another product. Discussing issues is not just of secondary importance. For those managing these empty elections it is increasingly an unnecessary distraction.

Gary Wasserman is professor of government at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Qatar. He received his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University. He is the author of The Basics of American Politics (14th ed) and Politics in Action (2012). He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and Political Science Quarterly.