You might think that Hillary Clinton has been running for president for, well, ever — but technically she began her campaign on April 12th last year, 18 months ago. Donald Trump launched his bid for the White House a more restrained 15 months ago. But if you want a real contrast, cross the Atlantic. I once ran elections in the UK, where the typical length of a campaign is not 18 or 15 months but four or five weeks.
Look, I get it about the constitution, free speech and all that. Believe me: As a recent(ish) immigrant, living in Silicon Valley, having taught at Stanford and started a business here, I have all the zeal of the convert. I truly think that America is the greatest nation on earth, and I feel profoundly lucky to be able to be part of it.
But can we just talk about the election process for a moment? Is there a single person in this country who feels better able to choose between Trump and Clinton today than a year ago? What have we learned about these candidates that we couldn’t have discovered over the course of the nine weeks since Labor Day? Nine weeks is double the length of a general election campaign in the UK. I’m not saying British democracy is perfect, not by a long way. But at least the flaws aren’t inflicted on the population on a continuous basis.
The most common thing I hear people saying about the election right now is “Please let it be over!” Of course, you could argue that the reason is not so much the length of the process but the uniquely polarizing nature of the major party nominees this time, and the fact that unusually, they were both well-known to the American people before they even entered the race. If two relatively obscure candidates had been nominated, perhaps the cries of pain from the public wouldn’t be quite as anguished.
There’s more to this question, though, than familiarity with — or contempt for — any individual politician at any given time. The length of election campaigns in America causes real, structural problems throughout our democratic system, regardless of who the candidates are.
First, the relentless posturing involved in near-permanent campaigns contributes to the hyper-partisanship that makes reasonable debate on public policy issues increasingly difficult. An environment where any half-thoughtful comment can almost instantly find its way into an overnight online attack ad is one that incentivizes politicians to put ‘messaging’ ahead of problem-solving, and that’s not good.
For example, I agree with Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on the importance of early intervention and parenting support as one of the best ways to tackle poverty and inequality. But if elected, I expect her administration would approach this priority in a disastrously old-fashioned, top-down, bureaucratic way that would end in failure.
No candidate of either party could say that: it’s too nuanced a position. With most members of Congress literally starting their next election campaign the day after this one has ended, you won’t see any of them move beyond yelling platitudes like “nanny state” or “war on women.”
But in the end, the biggest problem with long campaigns is perhaps the most obvious: the simple mathematical fact that longer campaigns cost more than shorter ones. What does that mean?
For a start, it means that it’s harder for people who are not wealthy to run for office. Who has the time and the resources to take two years off work to get elected? Rich people, that’s who. It’s no surprise that the proportion of millionaires in Congress is at an all-time high.
More than that, the cost of lengthy political campaigns is a direct factor in the systemic corruption that is such a notable feature of American democracy. In fact, if you look at what actually happens in Congress and in state legislatures, it is difficult to argue that America is in any meaningful sense of the word a democracy at all. It is a donocracy, where the funders of election campaigns literally buy the outcomes they want from the political system.
And lest anyone think the problem would be addressed by the left’s favorite mantra, “overturning Citizens United”, remember that the corruption comes not just from corporations, and not even just from political donations.
Look too at the role of organized labor, providing campaign infrastructure, volunteers, get out the vote operations. None of that would be touched by campaign finance reform. And then look what the unions get in return: in my home state of California, budgets that increase compensation for corrections officers while cutting spending on public schools and state universities. Way to go, progressives!
The truth is that even if Clinton wins, and by some miracle enacts some version of campaign finance reform, the assorted lobbyists, bloodsuckers, sleazebags and other hangers-on in Washington DC will breathe a huge sigh of relief because they know that for them, life in our nation’s capital will go on as corruptly as before.
No, if we really want to do something about the worst effects of our electoral process, let’s start by simply having less of it. Think of it like pollution control: it doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does make the world a bit less toxic. Radically shortening election campaigns is no more a silver bullet than changing the law on political donations. But it would make a big difference, and has the advantage of being easier to implement.
The two main parties could update their rules on when primaries and nominating conventions are held; even when candidates can officially announce. State legislatures have high degrees of autonomy over election administration and candidate fundraising, all within the constitution.
There’s no good reason that the 2018 congressional campaigns have to start on November 9th this year; or the 2020 presidential campaigns in 2018. Our elected and party leaders have the power to change this. For their own sake, let alone ours, let’s hope they do.