Monday, August 27, 2012

Democracy’s Death Watch


As the political conventions approach, the nation yawns. Fortunately tropical storm Isaac has added a little drama to the Republican Convention in Tampa, raising the possibility that there will be more excitement outside the Convention Hall than inside. It appears that nothing is on the horizon to enliven the Democratic Convention next week. Of course the media will do their best to convince us that earth shaping speeches are in the offing from those who either chose not to run or were rejected when they tried to, or even more pathetic, from the spouses of the candidates.

For a nation that eschews class and royalty we, nonetheless, give almost as much press to our celebrity politicians and their families as the British do their royalty. It has always been so – our history is littered with clowns who wanted to be, almost became, and actually were elected President. And they all had, or found before running for the office, a beautiful wife to buttress their own lack of charm. It makes for interesting and entertaining history, but it is especially irritating when it happens in one’s own time.

Our first President, George Washington, was a toothless old gent who sent most of his messages to be read to Congress rather than endure the pain of wearing his false teeth, to say nothing of the distortion of his speech they engendered. His “first Lady” seldom was at his side during public appearances, preferring to stay at Mr. Vernon where the “press” made little attempt to interview her. In those quaint years it was apparently thought that the opinion of the person actually seeking the office of president was more important than that of his spouse.

Washington’s wish for a non-partisan approach to the selection of our government leaders was short lived if, indeed, it ever was realized. So, through a succession of caucuses, smoke-filled rooms, conventions, and now primary elections, we have arrived at the era of the celebrity spouse, or in the case of one of the vice-presidential candidates this year, the celebrity mom.

All of this is interesting and sometimes amusing. It conjures the image of boys picking at, and fighting with each other while their moms vouch for the goodness of their boy.

But the really significant change in our selection process goes deeper than the glamour of the candidates or their spouses. The power of those allurements would be greatly diminished if it were not for the ubiquitous media, eager, by its magical kiss, to make princes from frogs, and at some point a frog from a previous prince, all to the glory of their ratings and the profit of their stock holders. And back of it all is the money machine, pouring out billions of dollars – yes, this year perhaps two billion dollars between the two parties – in support of, or against, one or the other candidate.

That last point should give us significant pause. We have a situation now in which, at all levels of government, candidates and their supporters are willing to spend hundreds of times more to get their candidate elected than he or she will earn in pay for that service. Of course the honor is worth something – for the winning candidate. But what do the millionaires who, from the shadows and sidelines, are pumping millions of their personal wealth into these campaigns hope to gain? Any thoughtful honest person knows that they expect to “earn a profit” on their investment.

It is time to admit that the “march of democracy” has led us to the brink of democracy’s extinction. When one man in Los Vegas can buy the attention of the nation and use his influence to destroy the reputation of a candidate he opposes through deceptive TV and internet ads, we can check off the democratic principle of “one man, one vote” and relegate it to the ash heap of failed political experiments. Democracy, if not dead already, is dying.

Can anything be done to revive the patient? It is hard to find any hope. Ultimately any hope lies in the honesty of each voter as they approach the polls in November. They will not have the choice between one wholly virtuous person and another wholly evil, although the ads would have them believe that is the case. Instead, they will have to choose between two imperfect individuals, one better suited to serve in the office he or she seeks than the other. As they enter the polling booth they will need to shake off the fog created by months of lying ads and try to discern who that “better suited” candidate is and then put their X by him or her, regardless of which party their name is listed under.

It is the only hope that democracy has for survival.

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