Tag Archives: Election 2012

Fluffy Democracy and the 2012 Election

I’m not a political analyst. But I am concerned – as a student and as a person – by the unquestioned, inherent value in the word and idea of “Democracy.”

I understand the need for a fanatic search for government other than despotism, especially in the past, and especially in the very early history of the United States. Democracy was the ideological banner under which the United States stayed United, after all. And the deification of the ideal upon which the government was sort of constructed seemed to be a pretty good plan – it tried something new, at least; it’s not common birthplace or allegiance to an individual or even language or religion via which Americans traditionally identify themselves, but work ethic and political representation.

And that’s a good and noble thing. But “Democracy” as we use it now is lacking in substance, and only vaguely reminiscent of the word’s original purpose and ideals. It’s a fluff word – a word that’s lost its weight, meaning, and context. Something we can tack onto any object to make it instantly American and socially approved.

And the need for quick and easy social approval is, I think, rooted in the decomposition of political efficiency in the form of the partisan two-party system. The two-party system, whether it is the best model of an election-based political system or not, focuses all public attention and energy on competition for competition’s sake. The goal of traditional political debates has been skewed from clarification of one’s views to beating one’s opponent.

Bill Keller, New York Times columnist and previous executive editor, suggests that the rabid opposition effect is increasing over time. We are in “The Age of Shouting,” politically and culturally, Keller says – where politicians study talking points more than policy and semantic slip-ups receive more attention than real inconsistency. He suggests that the current political scene will be slow to make any real progress towards culling the approach of economic entropy if it continues to value short-term popularity over long-term benefit. Attempting to cling to empty ideals has caused politicians’ relationship with the public to become an empty thing in itself; all intentionality is replaced with the rabid defense of platitudes to which we glue our identities, and any sense of common benefit is drowned out by the cry to defeat any opposition.

Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” , was a guest on “Crossfire” – a CNN show that featured commentators sitting at dramatically angled tables and asking political figures loud questions – in 2005. He called out the show for being culturally destructive and deceivingly theatrical: “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.” Stewart said to the hosts, “You have a responsibility to the public discourse.”

The comedian’s call towards participation in productive public discourse is impressively insightful. Democracy is a good and beneficial thing, especially for everyone who is not a) a despot or b) stronger than everyone else. But it does not magically self-perpetuate – because it is literally constructed of the public, it requires the constant activity and engagement of the public. Socially responsible and informed discourse is needed, and we’re not going to get it by finding cheap ways to win arguments. It’s going to take work and a widespread social movement towards real discourse to keep “Democracy” in the American lexicon as anything more than a buzzword.

You Should Care About Super PACs

The new potentially-sort-of-boring-topic-about-which-we-should-educate-ourselves (this is the first election I’m paying attention to and I’m finding a lot of these things) is the issue of Super PACs and their effect on the current election.

To summarize, Political Action Committees (PACs) have been around for a while. They are organizations that raise money to use toward elections, usually television commercials — they are limited to collecting small amounts of money from individuals, political parties, and other PACs — and the stipulation was that they could only accept $5000 per person per year, which meant that (at least in theory) candidates’ support would be semi-related to the amount of supporters donating to them.

In 2010, however, it became legal for some organizations to receive unlimited donations from corporations and unions: organizations which accept these unlimited donations are called “super PACs.” They are like PACs, but much more evil. While PACs forced candidates to build a large support base to earn a substantial amount of money, a few millionaire individuals or corporations can fund a candidate’s entire ad campaign.

Super PACs are devastating to the essence of democracy: Why should congressional and presidential candidates care more about the votes of single constituents than the needs of unions and corporations when campaigns can be made or broken by union and corporate funding?

Super PACs allow campaigns to distance themselves from negative ad campaigns while reaping the benefits from commercials slandering political opponents — Mitt Romney’s PAC (the idiotically named “Restoring Our Future” — okay, one might restore hope for the future, but not the future itself) spent $3 million running negative campaigns against Newt Gingrich, effectively killing his campaign.

(evil?)Super PACs allow corporations and unions to spend huge amounts of money on elections — billions, in the 2010 midterm election — and that directly translates into influence on government decisions. If you’re imagining large men in suits grinning evilly while photographing themselves with dollar bills coming out of their ears, keep imagining it: there’s a picture of Mitt Romney that looks exactly like that.

Super PACs are a key factor in the commercialization of the political process. Since the late 90s, the money involved in elections (adjusted for inflation) has increased at an alarming rate. The amount of money that went into the 2008 election ($1 billion, 86 million) was more than twice that of the 1996 election (599 million dollars, adjusted for inflation) — Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign alone spent more than was spent in 1996 ($799 million).

Super PACs do not have to report the amount of money they receive, or how they spend it. A candidate’s super PAC can fund ridiculous amounts of illogical and negative commercials without having to pin the candidate’s name on the commercials at all. A candidate’s super PAC can also donate money to other PACs, effectively buying the good will of other politicians. Recent Supreme Court decisions deem this legal.

You should buy one of these tshirts on Colbert's website. And protect democracy.

The Colbert Report flaunted the troubling legalities of Super PACs in last Thursday’s episode, when Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC (Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow) was transferred from Colbert to Jon Stewart as Colbert announced his fake intention to run for president. Colbert is not supposed to coordinate with the super PAC, his lawyer said on the show, but he could remain business partners with Stewart and the staff of his PAC didn’t have to change, even though they clearly knew everything about his election strategy.

Super PACs are the final step in making political campaigns entirely about money and slander. The political scene becomes a game of who-can-find-the-most-loopholes, with politicians focusing their energies on how to betray the spirit of the law without breaking the letter of it, which seems quite bad indeed.

GOP 2012: Why Competence and Communication are Important

NB: I’m a registered Democrat, but not a terribly leftist one. I’m a Democrat the way most college students are Democrats, I suspect – by default.

I’ve been thinking about the circus that is the Republican nomination race. You should know that I’m not a politics nut, nor do I plan on being one – but the state of my society does interest me sometimes. The GOP right now is both amusing and extremely sad. A series of caricatures who have served their time as one-month fads leaves me wondering about the state of American politics. The string of slip-up clips zooming through the internet and the idiotic things that these candidates have said might receive too much focus, according to some – but I think that the dismal communication and public speaking skills of the candidates this year is itself something to be concerned about, before even delving into their political views (too complicated for me to do any justice).

Bachman's disastrous Newsweek cover

Michele Bachmann was kind of the first fad of the GOP, and was slammed repeatedly for her bizarre and factually inaccurate comments in public – waxing poetic about New Hampshire, calling it “the state where the shot was heard round the world in Lexington and Concord,” while Lexington and Concord are actually in Massachusetts. She commented on the census, saying that “[My family] won’t be answering any information beyond [number of people in our household], because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that,” which also isn’t true – the Constitution mandates citizens to fill out census forms. Or this gem about carbon dioxide: “carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas. Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s life cycle…And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in the earth.” The woman is not a good speaker – she is clearly grasping for patriotic straws when she calls forth grand images of the Revolutionary War, and clearly grasping for Tea Party straws when she pigheadedly and uneducatedly dismisses the idea of global warming. This kind of saying-anything-to-please-a-crowd is not, not at all, a quality one should accept in a presidential candidate.

Rick Perry: Oops

Rick Perry was always too much like GWB to stand a chance. Not terribly substantial – seemed like the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with but, like W, doesn’t even seem like he’d want to be the president, at the end of the day. I think the stress of even the race was too much for him.

Screenshot from Cain's abysmal campaign commercial

When Herman Cain was declared frontrunner of the Republican Party, it was the last time that I was surprised/horrified at the state of the GOP candidates. Herman Cain, who attended Glenn Beck’s rally in Israel. Herman Cain, who said: “When they ask me who’s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?'” Herman Cain, who said: “I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration.” Herman Cain, who is a terrible, terrible candidate and appears to be willfully ignorant of foreign policy – or, at least, he imagines that that image is more desirable than utilizing his education.

So once Newt Gingrich was declared frontrunner, the GOP picking terrible candidates was sort of an expected pattern. Newt Gingrich was disgraced in the ’90s for having the worst Speakership in history – he suggested that the government shutdown was a personal attack against him, was the first Speaker of the House to receive ethical sanctions, and resigned in disgrace, commenting: “My only fear would be that if I tried to stay, it would just overshadow whoever my successor is.” I remember his name being the punch-line of jokes when I was a kid.

Also, he calls himself Newt, and he runs under “NEWT 2012”. Even without his ludicrous political career, no president should have an animal name, I’ve decided.

So why, why is the GOP choosing candidates whom I can mock by just quoting things that they actually said? Why are voters sashaying from Neo-Sarah-Palin to Neo-George-W. to Foreign-Policy-Knowledge-Have-Not to Only-Slightly-More-Desirable-As-A-President-Than-An-Actual-Newt?

An attack on the speaking skills of candidates might seem petty, but the speech- and communication- related responsibilities of the United States President are nothing to be neglected. I do suspect that the pressure on a candidate is more intense than in any other political position, and that slips in speech are widely a result of that pressure combined with the rabidness of the amusing-slip-up-snatching-and-amplifying media, but I also think that our standards for the public speaking skills of our president should be high. The pressure on candidates to not commit to anything – to sound good without making any promises – has caused the degeneration of political debates into a rhetoric-slinging festival resembling arguing grade schoolers.

These people are politicians – they have college degrees – they were popular enough to make it into the political scene and be elected to (in most cases) at least one high government office and run it with some level of competence. At least, that’s what I stubbornly assume, as I am afraid to allow myself to abandon all my hope in the political system. So let’s assume that the candidates are fairly competent and can sometimes speak without sounding like grade schoolers. Why, then, is everything about the GOP race so ridiculous?

I think that the 2012 GOP race so far demonstrates the logical extreme of a system built on fear of commitment and fear of offending even the most idiotic constituents. Noncommital and pretty-sounding political doublespeak is ridiculous in itself and always has been; in this year’s race, the insipid rhetoric has been deconstructed to reveal its logical core: nonsense. Politicians have been trained to say nothing for a long time; instead of learning what they need to know, they only need to be able to appear to know it; we are beginning to see the evidence of this more obviously. And with it, the apparent neglect of the American public to remember that the President is not only a likeable face, but the Commander in Chief of our army; not only a spearhead for conservative/liberal policy (depending on his/her affiliation, obvs.) but a position with the opportunity to encourage negotiation between the two sides of Congress and a key communicator with heads of state of other countries. And that is why the state of the GOP leanings isn’t just amusing – it’s dismal. Discouraging. One can only hope that the nominee will be someone we can take seriously.