How America's elections are ruining America
The length of our presidential elections is exhausting our ability to govern ourselves
Now that the presidential campaign is over and playing out in bitter recriminations across our social media feeds, or in many cases, our city streets, it's time to admit that I never want to go through another election like this again. All else aside, this election was far, far too long.
There were 672 days between the time Jeb Bush announced his Right to Rise super PAC and the election of Donald Trump. That's 22 months of presidential campaigning. That's just short of half a presidential term.
Let us all vow: Never again.
In our instant-media age, the sheer length of presidential campaigns is bad for the country. It's bad for governance. It's stupidly wasteful. Candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars over a period of two years to achieve their goal, and then exactly two years later, they do it again. The political groups that exist to advance one cause or another get sucked into this same dynamic. The media makes hundreds of young reporters race to retype the press releases of campaigns, scour their latest video clips, or recap the debates like new Game of Thrones episodes.
All of this to move a few million voters across a limited number of swing states one way or the other.
The length of our presidential campaign atrophies self-governance. Instead of citizens governing themselves, Americans increasingly define their political lives by their membership in one tribe, and their support for its candidates. Instead of electing a leader, we pledge fealty as followers.
The bulk of our attention flows to the presidential race. And because there is so much attention there, the process attracts candidates who are merely seeking attention for themselves and not high office. In fact, that may be why the primaries feel more and more like reality television, and produced a reality TV president. Each debate is a new episode, and the political press waits for the latest news about which contestant is eliminated.
Because our mode of engaging with politics feels tribal, and because the process takes two years, many people experience it as a crushing psychological and social blow to be on the losing side. Citizens who identify with the losing presidential candidate feel like they are no longer a part of their country. They experience the transfer of the executive branch from one party to the other as a regime change that threatens them. Remember the red and blue maps of Jesusland and America that appeared during the Bush administration? Back then there was heady talk of Vermont seceding from the union to become a bastion of tolerance. Fast forward a few years, and conservatives were the ones spreading stories about Texas' secession. This is not healthy. But it's going to continue if we don't begin to tame the presidential election itself.
The presidential election increases our sense that all issues are national issues. Even people who say they are addicted to politics often have no idea what is happening in their state or county government.
Ask the 10 people around you at work about Donald Trump's conversation with Billy Bush. All 10 will have an opinion.
Now ask those same 10 people who represents their district in their state's lower chamber. You'd be lucky if a single one knows the name.
How in the world is a political system in which power is devolved to states through federalism supposed to work in an information environment like this?
One cause for the gigantism of our presidential election is the gigantism of the executive branch. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in the process of governing us. Our next president has to hire thousands of people just to take full possession of the office. Of course it is immensely powerful. And one problem for reforming the presidential election to make it tighter and shorter is that there is hardly anyone in the political class that stands to gain from doing so. The longer the campaign, the longer people get paid to work for it, or report on it. It's easier to be seen and be hired for a nice job in journalism from the lowly position rewriting press releases about a presidential campaign than from your beat uncovering graft for a weekly newspaper in Wyoming.
But make no mistake: This system of long elections makes us more anxious, weakens bonds of civic trust and peace, debases the value of our citizenship, and corrupts journalism and our culture. And we're going to start it all again before you recover from this one.