What has no beginning, yet goes on and on and never ends ? The American elections. One might think that the interminable process concludes exactly two weeks from today, on Election Day, but that would be a serious error. Those elections – for a new House of Representatives and a third of the Senate – are just the prelude to the next campaign for which the jockeying, the handicapping of the “horse race,” the raising of enormous sums of money, and the negativity has already begun.
By contrast, elections in a parliamentary democracy occur much quicker, draw greater participation from the public, and are more meaningful. In the UK, elections can take place within three weeks, and in Israel within three months or less. The election season is very intense, but more focused on the key issues that concern the electorate. Voters get a snapshot of the candidates and can decide who is more attuned to their needs. Money plays a far more limited role in determining the outcomes than in American elections. For sure, those campaigns can get just as sleazy and nasty as those we have here, but the redeeming quality is that they are mercifully brief. The poison that seeps into society from the election season that polarizes the electorate here is contained there. They may be passionate, but they don’t suffer from a uniquely American malady: election burnout.
We have been hearing analyses, and reading polls, at least since the winter about the coming Democratic debacle, may it be G-d’s will. Night after night, the same talk often from the same people about the same issues and the same personalities fills the airwaves. The commentary from last night does not differ markedly (if at all) from the commentary in July, or May, or February. “The Republicans are poised to take the House!” “Obama’s approval ratings have fallen to a new low!” “Democrats are running from all the bills they signed into law with great fanfare – health coverage overhaul, the stimuli, the bailouts, etc.!” Get one with it, already.
I can think of only one reason why a rational person would vote for a Democratic Congress, considering that they have likely bankrupted the country unless their policies are soon reversed: self-interest. The unions dominate the election season more than any other “special interest,” except they are never called “special interest.” Today, more union members are public employees than they are employees of private companies. So they have an interest in big government, more spending, higher taxes, incessant borrowing and limited accountability – essentially, the Democratic platform – in order to sustain their government jobs (read: SEIU, the biggest union in the country, that represents government workers). Their salaries – much higher than similar jobs in the public sector – and their pensions and perks drain the economy, with minimal productivity to show for it.
These groups – add the teacher’s unions to the list – are the literal fulfillment of a statement attributed to both Jefferson and Franklin, that “the end of democracy comes when the majority realizes it can vote itself money out of the Treasury.” Add one other group to the list – those people who receive some form of government assistance – and we have a precise list of the Democratic base – those who seek a majority so it can vote itself money out of the Treasury. In essence, 51% of the population can eschew gainful employment but can vote through its representatives to confiscate the earnings of the other 49% of the population. We are not quite at those proportions, but we are getting very close.
The only way to combat this is through elections, but the process is just too long. I even fear that – despite the predictions – the Republicans might have peaked too soon, like a month ago. They will gain, but not as much as the pundits think. The long season has enabled President Obama to again hit the campaign trail, allowing him to do what he does best – rhetoric – with the concomitant benefit of keeping any new initiatives on the hold. He can shower the country with “hope” and “change” and “fear of going back” to, I suppose, the days of 5-6% unemployment. He can also promise to bestow more money out of the Treasury on people if they support his favored candidates – like the promise of another $250 “cost-of-living increase” to Social Security recipients, notwithstanding that the cost-of-living has remained stable in the last year. Why not ? It’s only money, and it’s not his money he’s giving away.
The protracted campaign also allows the malice to spew forth, with the outcome in the best of circumstances of voting “for the lesser of two evils” and in the worst, “a pox on both their houses,” which, of course, benefits the Democratic incumbents. The negativity, the lies, and the character assassination – “she’s an ex-witch !” “He cheated on his girlfriend in high school!” – is despicable, and unfortunately works. The media plays a major role in the depressing state of the campaign season, focusing on who’s winning and losing (the endless and inane polling) and emphasizing gaffes rather than policies. We are tempted to throw the bums out without quite knowing what the next group of bums will do. Peoples’ votes are often determined by the punchline of the old joke: a minister was forced to eulogize a particularly odious person, who was widely disliked by the assembled. Stumped for ideas, he turned to the audience, and asked plaintively, “Is there anyone here who has anything positive to say about this fellow?” After a brief pause, someone yelled out, “His brother was worse!” I eagerly await that campaign commercial, spelling out clearly and concisely the candidate’s primary qualification: “the other guy is just worse!” Actually, I think I have seen that one already.
There is no easy way out of this morass, which is a bi-partisan creation. Each party seeks election to gain for itself the sinecures of power, each party makes promises that it knows it will not keep, and each party enriches itself in office through patronage, private deals, and contributions from interested parties. To roll back the clock and deprive the citizens of the government largesse they have come to expect – each person for his own pet cause or need – is practically impossible. It is hard to wean the suckling infant when there is no other access to milk, and we have become a nation of infants who look to provide every need – housing, job, health care, etc. Just like the crying infant does not care whence his bottle comes, so too most of the electorate does not consider what Ronald Reagan used to routinely say: “Government has no money. It’s all the people’s money.” If people are not bothered by the fact that the government literally seizes their neighbor’s money and gives it to them – with liberal politicians essentially promising that – then nothing will change. No wonder President Obama is targeting the youth vote – they have only known taking, and they are being promises their elders’ money. And the Democratic coalition is further swelled by blacks who vote their skin color and by Jews who vote either because of an ersatz and nonsensical nostalgia for FDR or because of a contrived fear of the “evangelicals.” Whatever the reason, the coalition is a formidable one, and will require a large turnout to overcome.
Many have said that this is the most important election in American history, and it certainly is – since the last one and until the next one. For sure, the incumbents should be held accountable for their mismanagement, their puerile promises, and their shameless pandering. But with the number of people sipping from the public trough creeping close to the 50% mark, it might be too late to instill a sense of personal responsibility in the electorate. The innate revulsion against the reduction of the American character to those who connive, wallow in helplessness and take and take from others generated the Tea Party movement, which has sown fear in a political establishment that thrives on low turnouts and an uninterested citizenry. But it needs to gather steam now, not dissipate its force.
With the perpetual campaign already gearing up for 2012, there will be no respite. We need shorter campaigns that would reduce the influence of money, negativity, appeals to emotion, and the foolish spectacles that elections have become. All of which echoes Winston Churchill’s famous barb that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” But the same Churchill also stated: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
Let’s hope he was wrong on the latter.