Something is dangerously wrong with American democracy. I’m not talking about the apathy of the vast majority (that’s only a symptom), nor of the ineffective government (in fact, our founding fathers had a slow-moving and reactive government in mind and many of the country’s best times such as the Gilded Age came when government was not effecting much change in policy). What is wrong with government is the people. Simply put, I hate politicians.
That hatred is behind all the symptoms currently bemoaned as the “crisis of U.S. democracy.” We hate politicians. Politicians hate politicians. Good people considering going into politics hate politicians. I don’t want to sound as though I don’t respect and appreciate the people who run for office (I do). I just don’t like what they turn themselves into so that they can win elections.
Nor is this a rant against negative campaigning. I, unlike most others, see a value to negative advertisement. If legitimate, it helps to inform and interest the voter more effectively than positive advertisements. My local congressman was elected in large part because of a well-produced and pointed negative advertisement about the incumbent. Instead, this is a rant against the Republican Revolution.
Oh God, I can see you thinking, here comes another liberal, kicking a movement when it is down. That’s true, but this rant is different. The most subtle and dangerous effect of Newt Gingrich’s reign was not a policy (although some were very damaging in their own rights), was not a person in power and was not Newt’s amusing first name. It was their politics that were destroying government. They ran against government, and they won. The Democrats, in 1998, ran against government and trumped the Republicans. Now, the Republican presidential candidates are a governor who has an almost insurmountable lead even though he doesn’t grasp many important issues, a senator who made his name around campaign finance reform, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairperson who has held up a ridiculous number of appointments, a conservative with no experience in government, another conservative whose last appearance in government was during Reagan’s terms in office and a really rich guy.
The Democrats aren’t much better; the vice president is running against Clinton as much as with him, while his opponent is basing his candidacy not on 18 years of hard, impressive work as a senator but instead on two years of pseudo-retirement. Nobody wants to take credit for the most prosperous time in American history! In any other presidential election, the vice president, no matter how boring a speaker, or how incompetent a staff, would have an awe-inspiring lead at this point because of the economy.
Of course, I cannot only blame the Republicans. Clinton helped a whole lot. He’s not the most impressive figure to head the government, especially after the impeachment trial. Both parties deserve a fair share of the blame for the surge of anti-politician politicians. Besides, what’s done is done: now we need to re-energize government. That’s going to be tough.
The main problem is that there is no core constituency left. Nobody believes politicians. Once upon a time, liberals would always believe in government’s abilities. Now, liberals are stuck among political reality (Clinton’s New Democrats have replaced liberalism), political optimism (maybe Bradley actually is a liberal now) and cynicism (Bradley, many liberals fear, is not the liberal he acts like; it was probably the polls and he still wants to get government out of health care). Moderates are courted constantly by both parties so much so that it sounds as though there is no difference between parties and, therefore, apathy results. Conservatives never liked government, and, with Gingrich gone, the new Republicans are both incompetent and too moderate. There is no trust in the populace and politicians know it and use it. They use that lack of trust and attack each other, trying to brand the other one as the ineffective bureaucrat instead of the deeper issue debates of yesteryear.
So what can we do? The first step is to reward respectable politicians. Campaign finance reform will never work until people start to vote based on it. For example, until Bush’s $60 million become a burden because he’s beholden to his donors, there’s no impetus for change in his mind. Likewise, voters need to vote for the more respectful campaign to stop negative campaigns. Of course, voters are not likely to do this (nor should they necessarily), so the reform must begin with the politicians themselves.
Of course, entrenched politicians are not going to change – there’s no reason for incumbents to change. The answer lies in the recruitment of the next wave of politicians. This is the duty I charge (in my great capacities) to the current batch of college students. Look past the current downturn in politics. Run for office. Volunteer on campaigns. Encourage and support progressive candidates that care about changing the current vision of politicians. Soon, with a new batch of unspoiled voters, we can go back to politicians as leaders, not as the butts of our jokes.