Improving Democracy

The culture of campaign consultants, and the layer of control it places between the people and their elected officials, has changed and diminished our democracy in important ways. But, democracy is only as good as the voters want to make it. If we, the electorate, put up with air-brushed answers to tough questions and accept focus-group tested mumbo jumbo as a political platform, we have no one to blame but ourselves. There are, however, signs of hope. The internet has created a great way for campaigns to communicate with voters at low cost. The low cost component is important: the emasculation of a candidate by his or her consultants begins with reducing them to the role of fundraiser. Campaign uses of the internet are still not as interactive as I would like, but that will come, and introduce another layer of accountability: When a voter can send in a question to a campaign via its website, how long does it take to get an answer? Is the answer thorough? Or, does the website already have the information on it? Communication improves campaigns, but information improves democracy. The internet also goes a long way toward explaining another hopeful sign about the health of our democracy: the large number of young voters who are turning out. This phenomenon attaches itself largely to the campaign that has done the best job using the Internet: Barack Obama’s. While there remain many young people who are not engaged, the numbers are up. In Iowa, 22% of Democratic caucus-goers were between the ages of 17 and 29, the same percentage as those over 65. In New Hampshire, the 18-29 contingent was 18% of the electorate, still higher than the 13% who were over 65. On the GOP side, only 11% of their Iowa voters were age 17-29 compared to 27% over 65. And, in NH, 14% of GOP voters were under 30 and 15% were over 65. This strong preference for Democrats among the young does not bode well for the GOP in this, or future, elections. Of course, building a popular movement through the Internet can be a good thing or a bad thing. Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, Roosevelt-hating priest from Michigan used the technology of his day, the radio, to spread his crackpot theories. Demagoguery is ever a danger of improved communications. But, I suspect that this is less of a worry than it might appear at first. Young people especially seem to be discriminating consumers. They have strong BS-detectors. They take offense at the anodyne approach to the nation’s problems that characterizes so much political speech, or the reliance on distracting wedge issues by campaigns, or the inability of a candidate to answer a direct question. Anyone who has been involved in debate prep knows that a "good" candidate will take any question, re-frame it, and answer the question they want to answer. No one is better at this than Sen. Clinton. But, watching the Texas debate with my best friend, who was 29 at the time and is lucky enough never have to sat in on a debate prep session, he said of Clinton’s fluent replies: "Ya know, about ten seconds in to her response, I tune her out. She’s not answering the question." Her endless practice sessions, filled with the inhumane technique known as role-playing, have made her seem fluent and competent but also overly rehearsed and inauthentic. The Internet will not end the role and influence of consultants. But, it will change it, and in those changes, there is always hope that we voters will insist that our democracy improves. As Cardinal Newman said, " live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Democracy will never be perfect but it can always be perfected. Michael Sean Winters
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