Three Reasons Why the Election is Running on Empty

It’s fitting that a freakish storm (or fears of a freakish storm) should interrupt a presidential campaign that has shied away from discussing climate change. As the New York Times noted after last week’s third and final debate, neither candidate broached the subject in the course of the debates; nor did the vice-presidential candidates or moderators or the model citizens in the made-for-TV town hall.

Those who fear some conspiracy of silence on this issue, or think our candidates are cowards only when it comes to climate change, should be reminded that on nearly every issue before the country, the 2012 campaign has been almost entirely devoid of substance. Both sides have offered nothing more than zingers, soundbyte-sized bromides and unprincipled pandering.

You know things have gotten really bad when the TV pundits – who trade in platitudes and talking points – start complaining about the lack of substance in the campaign. That’s starting to happen, at least in the pseudo-serious world of public television. Last Friday on Newshour, Judy Woodruff asked Mark Shields and David Brooks why they thought the campaigns had been so lacking in real substance and so unwilling to engage on the issues. Neither correspondent gave the most obvious response – which is that this hollowing out is inevitable when you conduct politics on TV.

Instead, David Brooks fixed the blame squarely on the “consultants,” who have “taken over,” he said. This wasn’t much of answer, but – since this was TV – it sufficed; the segment was soon over and the discussion closed. Brooks could have easily implicated people like himself, the press and the punditry. He also could have added that what most of these consultants do, in one way or another, is package the candidates for TV audiences and attention spans.

At the very least, Brooks failed to go far enough. Consultants aren’t the only ones to blame. Off the top of my head I can name at least three other reasons why this election is running on empty.

First and above all, Citizens United: this is the first election held after the Supreme Court ruled, in 2010, that unions and corporations could spend without restriction in political campaigns, because they were entitled to the same free speech considerations as human persons. The consultants are simply following the money. So far, the glut of ads – someone the other day estimated that it would take 80 days to watch all the ads currently airing on TV in Ohio – has made even the candidates wince. The ads are superficial and offensive to anyone with a modicum of intelligence because they are always a ruse: they make up a cover story so that big money can pursue its aims through the electoral process.

Second, we’ve had no meaningful participation by third party candidates in the political process or the presidential debates. The two-party show airs without interruption and without challenge. This partly has to do with the control exercised over the debates by the Presidential Debate Commission, which produces the debates for TV. Run by lobbyists and sponsored by major corporations, the Commission approves questions, debate topics and moderators, and disapproves of outsiders who want something other than Coke or Pepsi, Red or Blue, Obamney or Romama. As Jill Stein (who is suing the Commission for keeping her out in 2012) remarked when she was arrested outside the debates: “It was painful but symbolic to be handcuffed for all those hours, because that’s what the Commission on Presidential Debates has essentially done to American democracy.”

Third and finally I would point to the deliberate, regular and daily conflation of the election with the popular vote. This helps perpetuate the illusion of a tight race and distorts people’s choices. It also makes the election a choice between candidates rather than an opportunity to talk about issues on a local, state and national level. The emphasis ought to be on the issues people bring to the election – which is where democratic elections begin – and not exclusively on the candidates or even their platforms. Polling focuses on how people feel about the candidates from one day to the next instead of providing data and insight about changing attitudes toward the enduring and emerging questions we, as a people, face. Who’s going to win? is the last question we should be asking ourselves in an election year. Or in any year. And it only gets worse the closer we get to election day.

The list could go on. But when all is said and done, the consultants and the pundits and the pollsters aren’t really to blame: we are. That may not be something you can say on TV, but if there’s a real battleground this election year, or in any year, it’s American democracy itself. It’s something we have to fight for and claim for ourselves and for every citizen, against politicians, powerful forces and against all odds. That’s not just highfalutin talk. Ben Franklin was right: we will have a republic, if we can keep it. I wonder if we can. I know the consultants have taken over only to the extent that we have surrendered.

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