Reclaiming Our Elections

As of this moment, Joe Biden has still to announce whether he is willing to run for President of the United States.  Most people, I think, believe that if elected, he would do an excellent job of the duties of that office.  They believe this even if they personally prefer a woman in the office, or an activist such as Sanders.  However, Biden has obstacles to overcome other than the prolific number of candidates competing in the Democratic primary.  One of these is that because he has entered the race (should he enter) later than other candidates, he faces distinct difficulty in raising the massive amount of funding necessary to conduct a campaign within the current structures.  His rivals have the edge in raising grassroots funding; many already have a substantial amount sequestered away and have already gained pledged followers to support them.  That leaves for Biden the support of the privileged wealthy.  That is not a small amount of money, but it is a distinct disadvantage to a campaign.  That source of funding gives the impression that Biden will be beholden to the wealthy and likely to act in their favor, rather than the favor of the common man.  In fact, Biden has always been a champion of justice for ordinary folk.  He is not against the wealthy; he is a moderate who is also for working people.

This is not so much a comment about Biden as it is about the system under which we run our elections.   A few days ago, an article on Yahoo predicted that the upcoming election would be the most expensive ever.   That is not really news.  The cost of elections has kept increasing with each election for a long time.  This advantages the rich, who can pay for much of their own campaigns, and generates endless solicitations for money from ordinary folk, many who do not have much to spare.  That is a de facto way of disenfranchising the poor and financially lower-middle class.  Never mind that our country was set up so that only wealthy white men could vote; we have progressed beyond that, extending the vote to all adult citizens.  That is null and void, though, if our elections are to be controlled by the amount of money available for campaigns.  That turns the vote as we understand it into meaningless talk, and the real vote into the money that can be raised for each candidate.  Is that turning the clock backwards, or have we never really progressed?   Perhaps it does not really matter, because the effect is the same. 

Most of the funds generated go towards advertisement via various media, especially television.  Most of those advertisements are geared not towards rational discussion of policy or to the strengths various candidates propose to bring to the office and the service of the people.  Most of the advertisements are geared to showing how awful a candidate’s rival(s) are.  Digging up mistakes from the far past and emphasizing the human failings we all have are a major focus.  Yes, we deserve to know a candidate’s weaknesses as well as strengths, but in balance.  Campaigning via paid ads, with their paucity of facts and their abundance of innuendo, relies on negativity to the extent that the positive aspects are difficult to discern.  We are asked not to vote for a particular candidate, but to vote against the others.     The media and the muckrakers are those who profit from such a system – a system for which we pay, directly or indirectly.

Towards the end of its ancient republic, Rome had such a system.  Those who aspired to the office of consul or praetor needed to be wealthy, as the candidates finally selected were those who could provide the best circuses (games in the arena) and the most largesse for the often-underfed poor.  Their elections were, in effect, bought.   It is often said that when people do not learn from history, it is in effect repeated -perhaps until we ‘get’ the lesson.   Yes, we often hear reports of bribery and corruption in the elections of other countries.   Our issue is our elections.  Do we want to be in the position of ancient Rome, before its republic finally collapsed?

There are political movements underway to limit the amount of funds any campaign can apply, to make all campaign funding transparent to the general public, and to allow for limited public (taxpayer-funded) financial support only for election campaigns.  They are laudable, but whether they will succeed or whether they are movements of words to appease the concerned remains to be seen.  So much depends on so-called “ordinary” people.  (There is really no such thing; each of us is special, individual and extraordinary, if we would only look and see.)

It is easy to assume that the system of our elections cannot change, that it is the way it has been and will always be.  I am not convinced, though, that it is now the way it has always been.  I do think the influence of wealth has always been there, but that it had a much smaller influence until the advent of transmitted communication, especially television.  Candidates at one time would travel, giving speeches in many locations, and people were interested enough to inconvenience themselves to travel to hear the speeches.  It is not now as it was, and it does not need to be the way it is now.  It is also easy to assume that nothing can be done because the powers that be hold the money, and unless the general populace can donate enough to outspend them, the candidates the wealthy prefer will prevail.

What, then, can people do?  The first thing is to realize their combined power.  A good example of this can be found in a movie that has been around awhile, though not necessarily at the top of theater listings.  In A Bug’s Life, a colony of ants is completely dominated by a small group of powerful grasshoppers until they realize that united, they have more power than the grasshoppers.  If we connect with each other and act together at the ballot box, we can surpass the money of the wealthy few.  In addition, we need to quit playing the game.  We must not be drawn into responding to fundraising tactics.   How so? may be the response.  If grassroots donations for ads are not forthcoming, then the wealthy will simply dominate the airwaves and win the elections.   True, but that is only part of the game.  We still have more potential votes than they.  If each of us refuses to vote for any candidate who runs an attack ad, or any candidate who spends more than an agreed-upon limit on any ads at all, the stimulus to actually incur these expenses will amount to little.  By that alone, the playing field will be partly leveled.  Subsequently, we need to demand more time to hear candidates debate and more time to hear candidates speaking for themselves.  Our donations can be not just for our favorite candidates, but for expenses to convene debates, bring candidates to them, and make sure they are publicized.  We also need to commit to spending our own time evaluating candidates who speak and debate.  What do we think (it can be inconvenient to think deeply) about the endeavors they present?  How do we read their body language?   Do they seem trustworthy? Poised? Diplomatic?     If we are deeply in favor of a particular candidate, we can volunteer our time to talk with our neighbors, write letters to the editor, and, in ways requiring our time or even inconvenience, provide support to that candidate. And, most importantly, we need to vote.  We need to take the time needed and incur the inconveniences we must to line up at the polls and cast our votes.  Yes, voter fraud is another issue tossed around in the ring of politics, and it, too needs to be addressed.  However, if the vast majority of us steadfastly refuse to fund the exorbitant spending, much of which goes for attack ads, and if we refuse to listen to or be influenced by negative advertising and open ourselves to being reached only for debates and speeches, especially in person, and if we also vote, we will have made a major advance in reclaiming our elections.

Let us consider these things.  In the end, each person’s decision will be a personal one.  Together, these decisions can be powerful.  Let us realize our unity and connections with each other and act so as to recover what is rightfully ours.

Peace, Diane