The Problem with Schoolhouse Rock

October 30, 2012

Spending on TV ads in the presidential campaign has exceeded $100 million in three states* -- $177 million in Ohio, $174 million in Florida, and $136 million in Virginia, where I live. My son and I watched most of the Redskins’ game last weekend and some of the commercial blocks were almost all political ads. A message from the President about his accomplishments, one from a Super PAC about the economy’s problems, a few thoughts from Mitt Romney, as well as spots from Senate candidates Tim Kaine and George Allen disagreeing about the relative merits of Tim Kaine and George Allen. Occasionally, a local car dealer would interrupt the flow.

I know, having worked briefly as a temp at a local TV station in my twenties, that stations try not to put competitors’ commercials back to back, but the volume of political ads is so high that it is impossible to avoid at the moment. The result looked like the old Saturday Night Live skit by the comedy team of Franken and Davis, the punch line of which was that the whole thing was sponsored by the Communist Party to undermine our faith in democracy. (Apparently Senator Franken’s faith was not completely undermined.)

It is easy to watch all this and be disillusioned -- that is, if our broken campaign finance system, chaotic primaries, and Sheldon Adelson hadn't already undermined your confidence in the system. But, as with many things in life, how you view it all depends on your expectations and worldview. If you expect democracy to work as it is explained in middle school text books, then there is reason for despair. The clean and orderly process, and absolutely fair distribution of power among the citizenry, that is explained there is not what you see when you watch a political contest in real life.

Like many people, I still have a very strong attachment to that ideal vision, and to the degree that politics departs from it, it bothers me a lot. But over time I have come to the intellectual understanding that you can’t judge real life against a perfect theoretical system outlined in 6th grade teaching materials. It may seem like a jarring change of focus, but it's worth looking at our system in the larger historical context. We are, in the most basic sense, a society of overly intelligent animals that only recently formed civilizations and began groping our way forward from chieftains to warlords to kings to presidents. In historical timescales, we just got rid of tyrants and slaves and began to think in terms of true democracy. That’s not an excuse for corruption or unfairness, but a factual realization that we live in a churning, messy, grasping society that is unlikely to produce completely clean and fair contests for power.

The existence of unlimited campaign contributions is a bad and corrupting influence in our system. We need to reduce the undue weight that very large donors have in our campaigns. Their ability to put millions of dollars behind their preferences makes their opinions much more powerful than that their fellow citizens’. But there is reason to hope that the sum of our messy process – from local organizers in Iowa to donut shop visits in Ohio to the sprawling political parties and hundreds of thousands of local elected officials – is an uneven but basically effective method of democracy. If we keep our expectations in line with the nature of our evolving society, and continue pushing toward greater fairness, we can feel okay about all those TV ads and the other untidy features of our political system.

*Figures reported by NBC’s First Read on 10/23/12.

Check here for regular observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.

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