We Must Reclaim Our Campaigns

Monday, July 18, 2005
It may seem far too early for you to start thinking about next year's congressional elections, but let me assure you that a lot of campaign professionals are already doing so. This should worry you. Let me explain. 

Elections are the key to representative democracy. In an election, voters express their preference for candidates and policies, and help set the course for the nation. Yet for some years now, I have been uneasy about the way we conduct elections for Congress. Elections have become enormously complicated events. Candidates hire speechwriters, pollsters, advertising and mass- mailing experts, turn-out-the-vote specialists, event schedulers, and a host of others. Because these elections are for high stakes, cost huge amounts of money, and require prodigious effort, no one wants to take chances. 

So candidates' public events are highly structured and often designed to insulate them from detailed discussion of the issues. The result: It is difficult these days to encounter the 'dialogue of democracy' that campaigns are supposed to represent — the chance for citizens to hear candidates talk openly and extensively about their core beliefs or their views on issues, and an opportunity for candidates and citizens to engage one another in debate and discussion. Instead, politicians and their consultants strive for tightly controlled appearances. Their goal is to put the candidate in as favorable a light as possible and an opponent in as unfavorable a light as possible, and to script every moment so that the candidate speaks only about issues that work in his or her favor. 

Since most voters get their information from television, in 2004, candidates and their supporters spent $1.6 billion on a medium that may be useful to them, but one which reduces the quality of public discourse by portraying candidates in a simplistic and often inflammatory manner. The result is that voters are often not getting the information they need to make informed judgments. This is not good for our Republic. 

It's hard to know what our representatives are actually representing if voters never get the chance to explore the main issues of the day with those who are seeking public office. So how do we voters take our campaigns back? How, in other words, do we break through the cocoon of television ads, radio spots, billboards, campaign literature, and meticulously staged appearances that the candidates are so determined to control. 

The key is for voters to demand as much information as possible from the candidates, not necessarily by supplanting current campaign tactics, but by adding events that would equip voters to make informed judgments on the candidates. What we really need are sure-fire ways for political opponents to grapple with each other over the key issues of the day and to respond to the concerns of the voters. Voters should insist that every logical institution in their state or district — including colleges, the League of Women Voters, editorial boards, Lions Clubs, and others — schedule debates, organize forums, host coffees and do whatever else they can to drag candidates into unscripted encounters with the public. By the same token, the press has become far too deferential to the notion that readers and viewers are not interested in the ins and outs of policy. 

When Tony Blair was running for re-election as British prime minister earlier this year, he faced a scrum of reporters every day, everywhere he went, grilling him on a bewildering array of subjects. I'll warrant that if American journalists pay that kind of attention to candidates for Congress — testing them, probing for their views, exploring their stands with skepticism and some real analysis — their audiences will follow. Broadcasters might also be urged to air at least five minutes of candidate discourse every night for the month before an election, by presenting a nightly mix of interviews, debates, issue statements, and question-and-answer sessions. In the end, though, responsibility lies with the American voter. 

Voters need to insist on useful information so they can make sound judgments about candidates, judgments on which, after all, the future of our democracy depends. If we do everything we can to ask hard questions of our candidates, if we go to those debates, forums and coffees prepared to engage with those who would represent us and to insist on answers, we can take the election process back into our own hands. If we demand more of ourselves, our politicians will have no choice but to follow, and the Republic will be better for it. 

(Lee Hamilton was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and is now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.)