An ordinary election ...
A cautionary tale of majority rule, charisma, and democracy
Truth is never a question of being in the majority.
In America, anyone can become President. That is, anyone rich enough can buy the presidency.
"Majority rule" is the golden rule of democracy. It implies that we're all equal in the end; we all have an equal say in choosing our government. It also implies some other things, and those are the subject of this note.
Let me pose a scenario a political 9.0 earthquake that we may hope will never come to pass, but that probably will. It concerns Mr.Ambrosia, an American multi-billionaire raconteur of relatively mature age, say 55. Mr.Ambrosia is a maverick, for a business man; he holds views that we associate more with skinheads. He fears nearly to the point of paranoia foreign intrusions, both physical and economic, into the U.S., and he believes to the depths of his Christian soul that it is the manifest destiny of the U.S. to rule the world. For the world's own good, to be sure. To rid the world of everything that constitutes his long list of foreign and un-Christian evils. But America also needs more room. To begin with, Ambrosia covets the giant underutilized country to the north. It should be U.S. policy, he believes, to expand by treaty or by force into Canada. These views, however, have been kept well hidden in a lockbox in his right brain.
Ambrosia has achieved everything possible in business, and he has just made the momentous decision to use his inexhaustible resources to satisfy his dream. Both his childhood dream and the aim of his philosophy could be realized if he were President.
STEP I Preliminaries
Mr.Ambrosia has never been involved with politics, but he's smart as a whip, he has some name-recognition, and he's not bad-looking, if a little rough-edged. His "Step I" toward his dream is on the QT and will take over a year. He makes inquiries about political consultants and hires the two best that money can buy: a strategist and a personal trainer. While the strategist goes to work on the long-term plan, the trainer goes to work on Ambrosia. He starts by hiring a rhetoric coach who will drill Ambrosia in presidential vocalizing, and a speech writer who'll spin winning phrases for the candidate and write a short book for Ambrosia's signature, designed for a quick read. Ambrosia will now be drilled in preferred enunciation and speech patterns, a power vocabulary, the debating techniques of deflection and avoidance, and the Jacksonian (no, not Andrew) emotive preacher manner that appeals to large chunks of the population. He'll learn to adapt his speech and his tone to the audience. He'll learn to stick to memorized phrases. He'll learn how to inspire confidence, how to appear like a leader, how to show just the right amount of pique, of anger, of empathy, of whatever emotion is needed, but above all how to smile with sincerity. That, the sincere smile, may in the end make the difference between victory and defeat.
(See my note on that from September '04.)
The trainer further hires a tailor to revamp Mr.Ambrosia's wardrobe. Everything gets tossed out; in go the new togs that are designed to perfect Ambrosia's new image as a wise and powerful, yet empathetic, friendly, and approachable but not perfect; that would be a serious error presidential winner. In addition, the trainer works with the strategist to put together an "issues team", which will instruct Ambrosia in the likely "issues", especially those that the strategist identifies as Ambrosia's own "hot button" issues. The rhetoric coach will drill Ambrosia in the speech writer's phrases that will bring Ambrosia's issues home to his various audiences; phrases that will linger long in the memory. Phrases like Ted Sorensen's brilliant "Ask not what you can do for your country .." and "Ich bin ein Berliner." The trainer also sees to Ambrosia's hairstylist, make-up artist, dentist, plastic surgeon, dietician, and physical trainer/therapist. The trainer personally takes care of the finishing points of manner, bearing, etiquette, and adjustments to the visible personality. The strategist, in the meantime, is hiring a chief accountant (of course no federal matching funds will be involved in the campaign; it will all be Ambrosia's private funds, thus there's no limit on what can be spent), and is arranging for a film crew and studio time, to make the early TV teasers that will run during the "coming out" phase. Having completed these tasks, the team is ready for Step II.
Step II Coming out
Here Mr.Ambrosia's strategist comes into his own. He has worked out a strategy that takes best advantage of Ambrosia's strength his unending flow of cash while minimizing the impact of his xenophobia and his evangelistic imperial designs. The strategy has only two goals: To get on the ballot in all 50 states and in the territories, and when the moment is right to overwhelm voters with massive, carefully controlled TV exposure. The rest will take care of itself.
The strategist starts by contracting with petition firms in all 50 states. These will send out paid petition gatherers throughout the state to gather enough signatures to get Mr.Ambrosia on each state's presidential ballot. This is no challenge; you could as easily get Dumbo the Elephant on the ballot. There are enough voters ready to sign anything; it merely requires sufficient funds. At the same time, the initial TV spots are being prepared. These will be longer than the average spot about 2 minutes long, and will show Ambrosia saying wise and sensible and noncontroversial things to various groups of voters. As with Ambrosia's later commercials, these teasers will say nothing negative about his opponents. These opponents are in the middle of party primary battles at this time, and are hacking each other to pieces. Ambrosia's TV ads will support the petition drive, giving potential signers a comfortable feeling about the very reasonable and very presidential Mr.Ambrosia.
The petition drives naturally succeed, and Mr.Ambrosia's name will appear on all presidential ballots in November. His strategist has chosen a party name (there's no real party, of course) that voters will feel comfortable with: Thomas Jefferson's "Democrat-Republican". Mr.Ambrosia is a unifier.
Though Mr.Ambrosia has no major political party behind him, he has what's far more important: He has more money available than any party has ever spent on an election. He is prepared to spend the bulk of his hundreds of billions of dollars on this election; it will be media exposure of a sort that has never been seen before. Ambrosia's team expects to outspend the two parties by at least fifty to one more, if need be. The Democratic and Republican candidates will be chased from the TV screen by an avalanche that they will not see coming until it's upon them.
Step III Getting elected
Little needs to be said about this. Of course Mr.Ambrosia becomes President, as he knew he would. There is no law, no regulation, to prevent him from buying the presidency. He has massively outspent the competition, and has therefore won, as we have learned to expect in our perfectly democratic elections.
Anything wrong with this?
The first question is, of course, whether this scenario is possible: whether a well-drilled, well-scripted and -managed, attractive candidate with unlimited funds can, in effect, buy his way into the White House. The answer as every candidate and political party knows, and which is the reason for their phrenetic fund-raising and for the back-door influence-peddling and bribery that follows is unquestionably "yes". It's a fact that money wins elections in this country, and we may say that Mr.Ambrosia's method is really not so different from what the parties are currently doing. It isn't just possible, it's inevitable that sooner or later a money baron who wants to be in the history books will coopt the parties' stranglehold on the election process and buy himself or herself, bien sūr a presidency.
And isn't all this perfectly democratic? Haven't the people voted? Haven't they chosen the one they want to be President? Well, yes, in a way they have. (You may be thinking that all this has already been tried by Messrs. Forbes and Perault, without success. But really; Forbes and Perault were klutzes who were hung up on actual issues a fatal mistake. They were unprepared, unschooled, and unmanaged. No, our successful baron-President will be as Mr.Ambrosia well prepared, well schooled, and well managed. He will understand what it takes to win, and will win.)
But the key question is whether this result is one that we desire. A cynic might argue that since political parties are already buying election victories, what difference does it really make whether an independent demagogue buys into the game? That cynical point is well taken, and carries a warning that we had better heed if we wish to achieve a democratic election process: The influence of money in our elections is corrupting. The result is what we have: a corrupt Congress whose members are in the pockets of major donors.
Are there solutions?
There is one way out of the money-grubbing election mess we find ourselves in, and that is to remove money as a significant variable in our elections. Unfortunately, this must be done by the very Congress whose incumbents benefit from the current system. Occasionally, one finds a congressman who is shamed into supporting serious campaign finance reform; but what are the odds on finding 218 of them? To have any chance of success, reform must not just limit campaign contributions, but must set up a new system and a new mind-set for elections. More on this later in these pages, but for now let's say that we, the electorate, need to treat candidates for office as we would treat candidates for any other job opening that we might have. We should expect candidates to present a detailed resumé and a statement of ideas, plans, and principles. Candidates should then be subjected to a series of probing job interviews by competent and unbiased interviewers, carried on public TV and radio and reproduced in newspapers. (For an idea of how different such in-depth interviews should be from the usual mindless campaign "debates", see my February note on "Real issues for the next campaign".) Private funds should play no part in the election, and the commercial political ad and unsightly billboard should become just a bad memory.
But it's not enough to change the election system. The inanity of our election campaigns is the way it is because it works. Because a large portion of our electorate are impressed by vacuous slogans and mindless TV spot ads. The American educational system unfortunately does not properly prepare young people for the difficulties of participatory democracy, particularly with respect to the electorate's vital ability to understand issues and to distinguish political bombastic clap-trap of the charismatic variety from calm presentations of facts and ideas, and to prefer the latter. Blue Ridge Journal will shortly explore the fundamental changes in our educational system that will be needed in order to reach these vital goals, so necessary if our democracy is to be revitalized and become actualized as meaningful representative self-government.
For ideas and current progress notes on election campaign finance reform, I recommend the web site of the organization "The Rest of Us".