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Thursday, May 5, 2011

When the Campaign Eclipses Governing: A Matter of Values

In the mix of politics and government in any republic, stretches of governance are marked off by much shorter electoral seasons.  As decision-points, election campaigns are not designed to be of a considerable duration, particularly relative to that of governing.  In other words, the point of elections is governance, whereas the objective of governance is not (and thus should not be) elections. The reason is that the function of elected representatives is to govern rather than to run yet again. When the interstices become the long lines, and the long lines are reduced to interstices, one can expect popular fatigue from incessant fighting and frustration from a lack of attention on governing.

In April of 2011, American news networks were claiming, “2012 has officially begun.” There was a conflict of interest in the assertion because the media stood to gain viewers from brewing controversies among the candidates for president. Both the candidates and the journalists stood to gain from the increased attention.  In early May, for example, the Huffington Post attempted to turn the story of Obama’s killing of Osama into one of electoral politics in the “upcoming” 2012 election. According to the Post, “The daring nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan draws a sharp contrast between President Barack Obama and a field of potential Republican challengers who have comparatively scant foreign policy experience.” The key word here is potential. Might it be more prudent to wait for the challengers to officially announce and start actively campaigning before analysis of a “determined” set of candidates is commenced?

Moreover, the attempt to steer the foreign policy story into the field of electoral politics implicitly suffers the opportunity cost of attention being diverted from other foreign policy questions that are related to the death of bin Laden, such as whether Pakistan knew of his compound and whether U.S. foreign aid should continue. The otherwise greater intensity of coverage on Pakistan's role might have made the difference in upping the pressure to the point at which someone in Pakistan with the inside scoop would have cracked and spilled the beans on what Pakistani government officials had really known.  

                        The Huffington Post

One of the few downsides of a free society is that media distractions can run far and wide--even snowballing without taking root. To the extent that representatives are either behind such distractions or are pressured to join them, a republic is vulnerable to excessive democracy (the bad side of the demos identified by Plato and Aristotle with the mob). The American citizenry may be too prone to vicariously enjoy the fights of a campaign (the modern day version of going to the statium to watch the gladiators?) while finding the civic responsibility of keeping attuned to the governing (or at least letting the representatives govern in peace) too boring and banal--not sufficiently stimulating in an age of "reality" shows playing out on television. Must the lowest denominator rule in a republic?

As another example of campaigning eclipsing governing in the context of governance, the health-insurance reform in 2009 and 2010 can be cited. The question of whether there should be a government alternative to private health insurance companies quickly gave rise to health-insurance-company-sourced talking points on death-panels thrown to partisans like Sarah Palin, who was not involved in the governing. Also, whether Barak Obama was a socialist was staged as a sideshow oriented to the campaigning realm. For whatever reason, it was difficult for the media (and presumably the viewers) to stay on point even when policy makers were trying to determine the merits of a public option.  In other words, even having representatives oriented to policy discussions may not be sufficient to keep a restless media and citizenry attuned. However, even some of those representatives might have believed their policy positions to be strengthened from a campaign-oriented digression. In an open society, multiple entrance points exist for self-interested distractions.

To be sure, citizen participation during the intervals of governance is not necessary in a republic; the problem is when citizens’ diversions enabled by the media (and/or government officials) eventuate in the governors turning to campaigning even without an election in sight. A crucial difference between representative and direct democracy is that in a republic governance is delegated to representatives. In other words, the citizenry is not obliged to remain engaged once governance again takes over after an election. This does not mean, however, that the citizenry must take the bait when some representatives are tempted to divert from governance by starting the next election cycle too early. Nor does it mean that elected representatives must take the bait from some journalists who suspect a wider viewership (or readership) could be obtained from stirring up campaign controversies even years before the next election.

Perhaps the underlying question is whether a representative democracy necessarily succumbs to the lowest common denominator, or whether a citizenry has the requisite impulse control to maintain the viability of the political system by refusing to distract the governors from their governing (or to take the bait from bored or campaign-oriented officials). It is essentially a matter of what the citizenry values: the duration wherein representatives govern or the titillating excitement of a childish fight at the expense of governing. The funny thing about a republic is that what we observe in our representatives can be a reflection of ourselves.  We blame them exclusively at our own folly. In other words, it takes two to tangle. If there is an adult in the house, perhaps we could get on with governing.

Click to add a question or comment on campaigning and governing.

Charles Babington, “GOP Presidential Field For 2012 Maintains Foreign Policy Void,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2011.

Jeff Zelleny, “Obama Will Move Political Operations to Chicago,” The New York Times, January 20, 2011.