If Democracy Is To Survive, Can The Role Of Money And Education in Elections Be Ignored?

The election is only days away, and, as seems to be the case with every election I’ve ever watched closely, brings with it many second thoughts.  Second thoughts mostly around democracy, education, and money.  There is hardly an arena in human affairs where these elements are so closely and paradoxically enmeshed.

I’ve watched elections very closely since first becoming interested in politics as a high school student when I attended California’s Boy’s State in 1960.   As a small town delegate from the distant sticks, I was overwhelmed by the sophistication, energy, personal investment, organization, and, even then, money, that the delegates from the large schools poured into winning elections for representative positions in a totally make-believe State.

I’d never seen such a seriously focused exercise in the early training for power, nor the screening process that sophisticated subcultures or a society routinely go through to groom those who have an interest, but not yet the acumen, for taking the control the subculture so highly values.  The goal is to identify those with real “fire in the belly” very early on.

The experience launched me on a lifetime of political interest which, had I only shown slightly more “true grit,” might well have put me on a path of power and notoriety from which I don’t think I’d have survived .  At the least, I’d have had a very hard time remaining myself.

My first unfortunate encounter with the dark side of democracy was an election for Sophomore Representative at San Jose State College in 1963.  I’d already served one term as Freshman Rep.    To this day I attribute losing the election to my opponent, Fred Best, to just two factors: 1) his last name, and 2) his membership in a fraternity.

By any criteria involving experience, intelligence, proposed programs, or the potential benefit of the electorate, I’m sure I’d have won the election in a walk.  But who are you going to support, Drake, or Best?  Add the backing of an “on the ground” group from the Greek community, and I think it amazing I was even in the running.

The good news, in distant retrospect, was that it showed my lack of stomach for a profession that would have had terrible consequences for me as a person.  The bad news is that so many people just like I was at the time wind up showing exactly the lack of appetite for the bruising arena of our political system that I did.  I think politics would be much the better if many more idealists persevered.

But I’d already been bitten by the political bug, and the infection has been in my blood every since.  Watching politics closely has impressed me with some of the most serous downsides of democracy.  Probably the greatest is the widely spread responsibility the system entails.  For democracy to function well, the electorate must be informed, intelligent, and, to a very large extent, altruistic.

It must be intelligent enough to make reasoned judgments about which policies are most likely to attain which goals, informed as to which candidates are most likely to effect which policies, and altruistic enough so that when what is best for the whole is not what is best for the majority of individuals, the whole wins anyway.

Every election brings all three of these necessary conditions into severe stress.

In America, the electorate is as badly informed as that of any modern democracy I know.  This is largely due to where we tend to place our attention during the non-election cycle, but it is also seriously impacted by how ill-informed we are relative to how our own government is structured.

Most Americans are more likely to be able to name the wide receivers of the nearest professional football team than the name of their local Congressional Representative.  Similarly, they are more apt to be able to explain why getting rebounds is important in basketball and some of the techniques used to try to secure that end than they are to be able to elaborate on the balance of powers and how the role of seniority in congress is influential in maintaining, or hindering, it.

We’re far more interested in sports than in politics.

And that is largely as the  political subculture wants it to be.  Little is more effective, in the way of derailing control, than an electorate that understands what the game is and who the players are.  And every “player” has times when he/she wants control of the game.

Unfortunately, this lack of interest during the non-election periods leads us to a circumstance wherein the influence of money becomes predominant.  I’m not just speaking of the recent obscenities around superpacs and undivulged sources of political money, nor of the absurd amount of money poured into campaigns these days.  I’m talking about the much more powerful force of erosion on policy effected through lobbying strategies, cocktail parties, and special privileges.  I’m talking about the myriad ways in which those with money spread it around.  You can’t tell me the long term effect isn’t a persistent pressure to bend the curve of law to benefit the monied classes.  And that’s how the law always bends over time, independent of whether it’s in a democracy or not.

Elections give the people an opportunity to exercise the knowledge they’ve gained via the sum total of their experience of government.  If that experience is neither long-term nor substantive, as it has become in America, then it is subject to the volume that comes with the power behind the amplifier of an election.  I.e., money.

The primary way to overcome such power is to have an educated electorate.

When I was in high school, civics was a required course.  I’ve long heard that it’s no longer required.  If that’s true, we’ve got to re-instate it.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s no way to run a railroad, let alone a nation.

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One Response to If Democracy Is To Survive, Can The Role Of Money And Education in Elections Be Ignored?

  1. Dallas Smith says:

    George, This is a very thoughtful and timely essay. My father was in politics (elected as a judge). But he was very proud when he had a challenger after have served a term as judge to “run on his record”. That meant that he didn’t spend any money campaigning, but rather trusted the people to make the correct choice based on his “record” while in office. He won the election and ran unopposed for the rest of his career. This would be impossible in today’s political climate, where money can buy elections regardless of the quality of the candidates and their records. Instead, we have lies packaged as sound bite commercials. They play the public for being fools, and unfortunately the public plays along. Do you agree with the old saying, that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve?

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