Questioning the reality show that is modern American politics

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., poses for photographs during a campaign rally in Hialeah, Fla., Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

We appear to be in the middle of an interminable campaign season. Numerous primary elections are being held every week, candidates give numerous speeches and the media cannot seem to get enough of it. We should ask ourselves why our electoral campaigns last so long and whether it is a good idea that we place so much emphasis on campaigning. 

In the United Kingdom, campaigns last five or six weeks. In America, presidential campaigns drag on for over 18 months. Many of the leading candidates announced their campaigns in spring 2015 and the media was excitedly chattering about 2016 shortly after President Obama was reelected. The media (and American public in general) is far more concerned with the horse race of presidential elections than the actual business of their government. The average American cannot be bothered to follow public policy or the actions of President and Congress between elections. We might ask ourselves, “Why be interested in elections at all?” when the American people are generally uninterested in all that elections accomplish, save for the production of a winner and loser.

The answer is not a pleasant one. Elections in this country do not have the feel of the sovereign people’s choice of their political representatives. They feel, instead, rather like an interactive form of entertainment for American mass consumption. The introductory segments of presidential debates by major news networks are so overdramatized and flashy that an uninitiated observer might believe the candidates for the presidency of the United States are actors in a reality television show. The excessively combative and childish remarks, at least on the Republican side, would do little to dispel this presumption. Our politics are covered by networks yearning for high ratings, eager to turn the processes of government into a consumable good to be enjoyed and disposed of. American Idol not only brought democracy into reality television, it brought reality television into our democracy.

The media and American people at large should not view campaigns as an extended, political version of Survivor or The Bachelor, eagerly anticipating the next person to be voted off the island or anxious to see whom the American people will give a rose. Our republic deserves more than that from us. The first step in remedying this set of affairs would be to drastically reduce the importance we place on the political horse race and spend more of our time discussing what our political representatives do between elections, the stuff that really matters. In accord with this more enlightened and deliberative mindset, the length of political campaigns should be vastly reduced. Certainly, 18 months is far in excess of the time necessary to conduct a political campaign.

The media and American people at large should not view campaigns as an extended, political version of Survivor or The Bachelor, eagerly anticipating the next person to be voted off the island or anxious to see whom the American people will give a rose.

One remedy, specifically for primary elections, would be to have them take place on the same day in every state. Of course, early states would like to preserve their influence in selecting the likely nominee and providing momentum to candidates. Yet, there is no fundamental reason why Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina should have first pick on each party’s likely nominee, influencing the choices available to and decisions rendered by later states. The citizens of these states have no greater political wisdom or understanding than those of other states. Every state has an equal status as a member of the Union, and it is unjust to allow some states more electoral power and influence than others in the selection of candidates for the presidency of the United States. Of course, presidential candidates would also oppose this change because it calls for the intensive national campaigning of the general election in the party primary.

However, the primary process should not be structured according to the campaigning wishes of presidential candidates, but according to what is in the best interest of the American people. Finally, the media would resent the loss of the opportunity to cover a long primary season. Yet, this may be the best reason to adopt the process. The media wants to package primary elections into an extended season of political entertainment. This view of American politics is precisely what we should prevent. Instead, all presidential primaries should be held on one day and on a day only a few months before the general election. This should reduce the inordinate focus on the elections and leave more room for the discussion of substantive policy. 



Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.