Election 2008: Lessons from the Campaign

The 2008 Election Series:  Article #7
Dr. Dudley Weeks ©

In order to focus on the campaign itself, not which candidates ultimately win; I am writing this article on the day before the 2008 election.   How candidates and political parties run their campaigns say a lot about their character, values, ethics, and priorities.  Campaigns also reveal strengths and weaknesses that will continue if and when a candidate is elected.

There are many lessons we must learn from the 2008 campaign, but I will focus on the four I believe are most critical.  If we ignore and refuse to learn from these lessons, the American political process will suffer greatly.

1.  Extremism in the Pursuit of Winning
One of the problems embedded in the American culture's worship of "winning" and being "Number One" is the use of extremism in political campaigns.  Distortions of fact and truth, blatant lying, and character assassinations of opponents often occupy more time, resources and energy than an honest, clear dialogue on the important issues.  Distortions, lies, and attacks on opponents are clear signs that the candidates or parties engaging in such deplorable acts are not confident in competing for election based on their positions on the issues.  Furthermore, such negative campaigning is an insult to voters, and denies them information on what really matters.

Credible and objective analysts of the 2008 elections have agreed on the sad fact that extreme levels of lying and deception have characterized the campaign.  The most frequently mentioned and criticized attacks involve the false characterization of Barack Obama as "a Muslim", and "a supporter of terrorists", and "unpatriotic", and a "socialist", and "having no respect for life".  False accusations have been endless.  The ad inferring Elizabeth Dole's opponent was "godless" further disgraced American politics. 

As readers of my writings know, I am not a member of any political party.  I try to call things as I see and understand them.  In doing so, I suggest those examples qualify as alarming extremism, no matter which party infects the election with such attacks.  Furthermore, when a campaign is built on lies and on the division of the nation into "good versus evil, "right versus wrong", and "us versus them", whoever becomes president inherits a nation badly wounded by division.

Whichever party or candidate engages in negative extremism, we as voters should hold them accountable.  One way is through our votes.  Another way is firmly pointing out the falsehoods whenever a friend or group of citizens claims those accusations are true.  If U.S. political campaigns continue to use and justify such extremism, the entire nation is damaged, as are the values our nation claims to cherish.

2.  Debates
Debates have a lot of positive potential, but the formats used obstruct much of that potential.  The responsibility for how the debates are conducted is equally shared by the strategy gurus of both major political parties and the TV networks.  The gurus try to "protect" their candidates from stumbling, and the networks squeeze the debates into a narrow window between regular programming.  The result is a kind of shallow sideshow in which candidates are encouraged to give inane sound-bites instead of engaging in substantive dialogue on the important issues.  I suggest the debates either be discarded or the format be significantly changed.   With an experienced facilitator in charge, not a TV news personality as moderator, an educational back-and-forth, in-depth dialogue on issues can replace the current formats.

3.  Campaign Financing
The issue of campaign financing is complex.  The citizenry, whether individuals or groups, has a right to donate money to the candidates of choice, and placing limits on how much any single donor can give is a reasonable and fair ingredient of the campaign financing process.  But the amounts of money spent on political campaigns has reached staggering levels.  Campaigns go on far too long, voters are inundated with ads that feed the distortions and lies mentioned above, and huge sums of money that could be spent on needed projects for the citizenry go instead to excessive election campaigns.   

I believe there should be a tightly enforced ceiling on how much money any candidate and party should be allowed to raise.  All candidates should receive the same amount of public financing, all candidates should be allowed to raise the same amount of private donations, and all candidates and parties must keep within the total amounts allowed.  A new campaign financing law needs to be supported by the new president and the new Congress.  For the first time in memory, the 2008 elections have seen Democrats raising more money than Republicans, mostly from small, individual donations of American citizens.  Now that both major parties have experienced what it's like to raise less money than the other party, perhaps there can be a bipartisan effort to put a ceiling on campaign financing.

4.  The Electoral College
The Founding Fathers (and the Founding Mothers who influenced them without getting credit) were wise in so many ways. However, the invention of the Electoral College was not one of the Fathers' shining moments.  Sure, there was some logic back then to giving the smaller States more voice so as not to put too much power in a centralized national government, but the essential principle of one person, one vote was one of the casualties.  As recently as the 2000 election, we saw a popularly elected president denied the right to take office partly because of the Electoral College system.  The voters in one or two states ended up having more power than the American citizenry as a whole.  And states than give all Electoral College votes to the popular vote winner, even if the winning margin is a mere 2%, blatantly violate the one-person, one-equal-vote principle.

Year after year, without any success, I continue to advocate an end to the Electoral College system.  I am not convinced there is any real need for the College, and I contend there are solid arguments for removing it from our voting process.

The United States of America proudly proclaims itself as the best example of "democracy".  Although some disagree with such a claim, we all know that elections giving each citizen an equal voice in choosing leadership are a major component of political democracy. 

I believe the U.S.A. has a responsibility to itself and to the principle of democracy to improve the ways election campaigns are conducted.  I urge the new president to appoint a task force composed of non-politicians who have no vested interests in political party affiliation to spend the first year of the president's term designing a new campaign system in which ethics, ceilings on spending, and a more nation-wide standard for conducting primaries become the major goals of reform. 

Dudley Weeks


(Copyright 2008: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}