We are oh, so close to election day, and those of you living in battleground zones are being bombarded with radio, print and television ads for candidates for every available office on both sides of the aisle. As time grows shorter, these ads degenerate into hateful personal attacks that aren't necessarily grounded in any sort of fact - but as long as the disclosure states that the ad was paid for by an independent citizens' group and not endorsed by the candidate, this is 'okay'.
It's enough to make you swear off both voting and the media forever, really. Your country needs you, and it's your duty to vote (but feel free to swear off television - it'll be good for you). But perhaps it's time for a drastic change in the way we allow politicians to run for office - that's right, 'allow' - they work for us, remember?
Doesn't it seem strange to you that the major headlines during election season talk about who outspent who rather than who won the debate? Or where everyone stands on the issues? Doesn't it seem a little devious that political parties can skirt campaign laws by seeding 'citizens' groups' who buy blocks of airtime to launch attacks that the campaign itself wouldn't dare be directly associated with?
Our way is not the only way, not even in comparable government structures. Many countries throughout Europe and South America use public funds to elect their officials, and place strict (low) limits on spending and private donations. In the UK, television reporters are not allowed to editorialize or offer personal opinion on political issues (which is why the BBC is one of the most respected news outlets in the world, and FOX News is, well, FOX News).
This strategy offers an alternative to the American 'May the biggest spender win' tactic. Think about it - all of this money being spent on campaigns could definitely be put to better use elsewhere, surely - and it's not like this money is spent spreading information. It's spent on 30-second spots that rile up the base (i.e., those whose votes you already have) and make a big show for the opposing party.
Seriously, if you listen closely to the end of a campaign ad, you can almost hear the authors saying, "Your move, other guy..."
Popularity Contests and Clean Elections
American elections are no longer about finding the right person for the job, or even about discovering how the citizens want to be led and served - it's about winning now. From the party leaders to the candidates to the voters themselves, it's about us versus them - winning. And when someone 'wins', we all lose.
A number of states have tried to run 'Clean Elections', where a candidate collects a set amount of very small donations from actual constituents, and is awarded a government grant in exchange for not collecting any more private funds. The initial collection is intended to prove that the candidate is a viable one, then the state steps in and provides the rest of the cash in an attempt to level the playing field - because those politicians who cater to the needs of the disadvantaged have a lower donation pool from which to draw than those who cater to the needs of corporations and the rich. So without this system, the guy who serves the rich will win every time.
And...It Goes Wrong
This is how it has worked so far, and we've ended up with a system where the corporations and the rich are in charge - and they're making out pretty well, so they have no inclination to change things. The Clean Election idea sounds pretty fair, right? Well, it was made into an opt-in system to avoid violating Free Speech (because apparently, money=speech) - so now, unless both candidates opt in, the state now must step in and provide 'emergency funds' when the privately-funded campaign out-spends the state-funded guy. So the election still costs tons of money, but now a portion of the burden falls on the taxpayers.
The advantage of requiring all campaigns to be funded solely by the government would be the strict spending control - although taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill, at least the amount could be kept in check. We could allow only a certain amount of advertisement, and the media would be legally required to provide free or very cheap airtime and ad space for candidates on both sides.
Maybe then we could actually get down to some issues and try to actually have a government rather than a kindergarten playground. And perhaps we could switch the word 'politician' from a pejorative term to a job title.