Thursday, January 31, 2008

Long Elections

In general, I'm of the mind that the election process in the U.S., particularly when it comes to presidential elections, is way too long. Whoever ends up winning in November will, in effect, have been running for a year and a half. That means that the news coverage, speculation, analysis, polling, etc., have all been going on for longer than that. Given the fact that all these people have other jobs, is this really the best way for them to be spending their time? Shouldn't they be worried about being senators, congresspeople, and governors (or even hedge fund managers or security firm owners)? And don't even mention the copious amounts of money all this takes.

I still think the election cycle is probably too long (and definitely way too expensive). But I'm coming around to the view that there is an important value in longer election cycles.

Presidential elections are when we have our most vigorous, lively, and substantive, public debates. Most of the time, political debate is confined to the halls of congress, talk radio (if that even constitutes debate), and the occasional water cooler and dinner party conversation (depending on where one works and who one invites over for dinner).

But when we are trying to elect a president, issues of political philosophy and public policy get pushed out into the open and dominate more of our time and attention. They drive the debates between the candidates and, in turn, drive much of the debate among the public as we try to determine how best to vote. Sure, there's often a lot of noise that has to be filtered in order to get to the substance and plenty of us have already made up our minds before the whole thing even gets going. But if the primary results thus far are any indication, there are plenty of us who haven't. And for us, a lengthier election cycle is a unique opportunity to reflect with others on core issues of justice.

Let me put it another way. If the value of elections was determined solely by the degree to which they helped us pick our leaders, then I think there would be a presumption in favor of much shorter election cycles. We really don't need a year and a half to decide how we are going to vote. But if I'm right, the value of elections isn't reducible to this. There is an important value in carrying on an extended national conversation about where we want the country to go and how we can best achieve those goals. Of course, this conversation culminates in the selection of a president. But the value of the process can't be reduced to the value of the choice that it leads to.

Incidentally, this gives credence to the view that there is a value in certain presidential bids that are sure to fail--i.e., the Dennis Kuciniches and Ron Pauls of the world. If their campaigns were valuable only insofar as they had a legitimate chance to be elected, then they are clearly wasting their time, energy, and money. But if they are able to shape and contribute to the broader discourse, then perhaps their efforts are worthy after all.

1 comment:

NonVoxPop said...

Beautiful observations. Two points: 1) this elongated political season is good for those of us who have a propensity for politics but NOT sports, and (more importantly) 2) interestingly, disagreement arising from the sort of deeper morality-dialog that springs from these long seasons is damned unpleasant. I know it’s elementary, but the dissonance between theory (we’re a pluralistic society which prizes discussion of these issues) and practice (“what do you mean you’re voting for him, you jack-ass? Jesus hates what you’re doing!”) is pronounced.