Sunday, November 23, 2014

America’s Flawed Election

PRINCETON – No doubt many people around the world, if not most, breathed a sigh of relief over the re-election of US President Barack Obama. A BBC World service poll of 21 countries found a strong preference for Obama everywhere except Pakistan. Joy over the election’s outcome, however, should not blind us to its failure to meet a series of ethical benchmarks for democratic choice.

According to the US-based Center for Responsive Politics, spending on the election – for President and Congress, and including spending by outside groups as well as by the candidates and their political parties – is estimated to have exceeded $6 billion. That makes the 2012 US election the most expensive ever held.

The bulk of this spending is just the two opposing parties canceling each other out. This benefits advertising agencies and the media, but no one else, and surely not the parties themselves, or the viewers who are bombarded with ads, especially if they happen to live in hotly contested swing states. It is difficult to believe that, say, $200 million would not have been enough to inform the electorate adequately of the candidates’ policies.

In this scenario, spending limits would have saved about $5.8 billion. And, if such limits were combined with public financing of election campaigns, they would also help the election to meet an important ethical standard by denying the rich a disproportionate influence on outcomes, and hence on the subsequent actions of the president and Congress.

No one really expects political advertising to provide citizens with the information they need to assess the candidates’ merits properly. For the presidential election, however, the practice of holding three televised debates between the two major parties’ candidates should be an opportunity for a thorough airing of those issues. Unfortunately, the most recent debates failed to achieve that goal.

Consider, for example, the final debate in October, which was supposed to focus on foreign policy. The US may no longer be the world’s undisputed leader, as it was in the decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse, but it nonetheless has a vital role to play in international affairs. Obama referred to the US as “the indispensable nation,” and that description still holds true, in part because US military spending exceeds that of the next nine countries combined – five times more than China, the world’s second-largest military spender.

There was, however, no serious discussion of the conditions under which it would be right to use that military might. Both candidates indicated that they did not favor military intervention to prevent the Syrian government from killing more of its citizens; but, neither was prepared to say when they would be prepared to accept the responsibility to protect citizens who come under attack from their own government, or from forces that their government is unwilling or unable to restrain.

Both candidates said that they would support Israel and not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but there was no discussion of solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, or of the grounds on which countries that possess nuclear weapons might be justified to use force to prevent others from developing them.

Indeed, what was not discussed in the candidates’ debate on foreign policy was more significant than what was. All of the discussion focused on the region that stretches from Libya to Iran. China was mentioned only in terms of its supposed “cheating” on trade and currency matters. Issues like the eurozone’s troubles and relations with Russia received no attention at all. Needless to say, neither candidate thought it worthwhile to put forward a proposal to assist the more than one billion people living in extreme poverty.

The gravest omission was climate change. The closest Obama got to it during a debate was to talk about “energy independence,” which implies not being reliant on oil from the Middle East. That, obviously, is something that every patriotic American wants.

Obama also mentioned that he had raised fuel-economy standards for cars in the US, and had invested in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power. But, when Romney talked about increasing coal production, Obama neglected to point out that carbon dioxide from coal-fired electricity generation is already a major contributor to climate change; that we still lack the technology to produce “clean coal”; and that increasing the use of coal will impose huge burdens on people worldwide.

It took the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to get the president to mention climate change. After that, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was endorsing Obama, because his policies were better on climate change. In response, Obama acknowledged that climate change is “a threat to our children’s future, and we owe it to them to do something about it.”

Now that he has been re-elected, the question is whether he will pay that debt to our children and to the generations that follow them.

Read more from our "Four More Years for Obama" Focal Point. 

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    1. CommentedMark Pitts

      Much is made of campaign spending. But consider:
      A few well-placed liberal (or conservative) journalists have as much effect as tens of millions spent in advertising. Is that "fair?"

    2. CommentedAbiola Oyebanjo

      The US election gulped a whooping estimate of $6bn (both the presidential and congressional campaigns). In relative terms, the figure covers a little over 20percent of Nigeria's proposed 2013 Budget. Voting machines were also purchased from Romney's HART Intercivic. Monies received can also not be scrutinized as business moguls steep their interest on the elected leaders. God help America!

    3. CommentedTom Whelan

      Prof. Singer radically understates the amount of money spent on the election. Taxpayers involuntarily contributed more than $85 billion to Obama's "GM is Alive" advertising campaign, which conveniently omitted that

    4. CommentedBen Leet

      Cutting Medicaid by 53% in 10 years is an ethical question never addressed in the election. Romney's plan (and Ryan's) would have cut by half Medicaid's funding -- see the report -- Two-thirds of Medicaid's expenses go to seniors or persons with disabilities, according to CBPP's "Policy Basics: Medicaid" paper. The ethics of such a cut in funding was never an issue. Why? Reducing non-defense discretionary spending by 2/3 of its historical average since 1945 was never an issue either - again see the report. By the way, there are more than 2 parties.

    5. CommentedPeter Bernstein

      In just the previous paragraph you claimed most of the spending is just the two parties canceling each other out and that it has little benefit to the parties themselves. How can campaign spending both have little effect and allow wealthy a disproportionate influence on outcomes at the same time?

        CommentedBen Leet

        Looking at Open Secrets page on donations, they show that 67% of donations were over $200 and came from 0.39% of the adult population, and 30% of all donations were above $10,000. The Open Secrets page states a much lower number for total donations, so there is some confusion with the comparison.

    6. Commentedjames durante

      I think the confusion lies with the premise that the USA is supposed to be, in some way, a "democracy." The Constitution centralized economic and political power in the federal government and set up a whole host of barriers to democratic governance. As the wealthy, Constitutional framer Governeur Morris put it, "the evils experienced under the Articles of Confederation resulted from an excess of democracy." Or, as Hamilton opined, "the masses are asses."

      So a Roman style Republic was fashioned that would secure aristocratic rule in the Senate, separate the executive from the people via the electoral college, and confine the House to the fewest powers and shortest terms.
      Strict voting requirements would prevent the rabble from participating.

      Now much has been amended so new barriers to "people power" have become necessary. Total corporate control over media, unlimited corporate spending, a lobbying industry that freezes out anyone without serious money, etc.

      The elections do not live up to democratic ideals because we don't have democratic ideals. The purpose of the state is to secure unequal distribution of wealth and power. It does a reasonably good job of it (as it did in Rome until the inevitable collapse).

    7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The flaw in the article and all the similar articles and opinions on this topic is that we still think we have free choice here.
      And this stems from that miscalculation or delusion that humanity is above the natural ecosystem surrounding us.
      We think that somehow the evolutionary process that contributed to the development of humanity now suddenly stopped, we somehow stopped it like with a video player pushing the "pause" button, and we took over management and can do whatever we want.
      So humans initiated new systems, we introduced new laws, building the human society on this new human "reality", we award Nobel prizes for these "inventions' and discuss them endlessly as if they were true.
      Even now when this whole sand castle starts to fall, we still try to save it, "solve it" with our own understanding, stubbornly refusing that the whole structure was built on an illusion.
      Neither President Obama, or any other leader or simple human being has any free choice about this.
      Either we understand that we are still part of the vast, infinitely larger natural system around, and that its laws of general balance and homeostasis are binding for as as to any other living species, and based on this understanding we gradually and as fast as possible re-adapt to the natural principles within ourselves, within human society and in the relationship in between humanity and nature, or we will be forced to do so by unprecedented suffering inside and outside of human society at all levels.
      And this is not like "Nature taking revenge", no it is us committing suicide, like a person jumping off the top of a tall building simply refusing to accept that the law of gravity is in effect.
      The system of nature is like a "machine" ticking away with its unchanging and absolute laws, either a species adapts to it or it becomes extinct.
      The role of President Obama and other public opinion influencing personnel is ti initiate a global education program about the natural system, our own behavior, the way we can adapt to the system to avoid a very unpredictable and volatile future.

    8. CommentedThomas Haynie

      We have a whole new class of the impoverished being farmed at home. I don’t think talking about helping the poor in other countries would sit so well in this country at the moment.

      The absurd “climate doubt” movement has gained a significant amount of followers. With a close election and polls it makes perfect sense that he would not go there. The love for free markets is so strong in this country, reaching the levels of religion, that some such as the charlatans over at CATO prefer to allow free markets to dictate what the science is. New Jersey and New York is largely affluent, intelligent and intellectual types that are more inclined to believe in Global Warming (it helps to live in an area where one can SEE smog).

      I think we narrowly got to keep him. But now that we’ve got him I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of the Green Agenda.

    9. CommentedCamden Cornwell

      You use the words "ethical standard" with little clarity, and I think with little justification. First off, there have been a number of campaigns where the richer candidate outspent their opponent and lost. This is not to say that money does not wield a level of influence, but it is not the sole determinant and arguably will matter less as costs of information spreading decrease.

      Insofar as ethics are concerned, there are a minefield of concerns with spending caps on campaigns. For example,if a candidate pays money to a publishing company to publish a book where their political views are outlined, is this campaigning? If it is, are you ready to claim that this speech should be suppressed if the candidate has met their spending limit? What if someone else feels compelled to campaign for them? Should they be limited in their speech under the spending cap?

      Your distrust for the Citizens United ruling is evident, but you don't address the real ethical problems underlying campaign spending and speech.

      However, I will agree that campaigns could use a bit more substance. But that is nothing new.

    10. CommentedFrancisco Alves

      The million dollar question. Sandy helped win these elections, let´s see what president Obama does to curb global warming emissions. My guess would be... nothing.

    11. CommentedFrancisco Alves

      Not to worry, in four years time, they will be even more expensive. Makes you wonder if democracy really speaks for the people or if it serves the purposes of a few by throwing the majority a bone.

    12. CommentedOlanrewaju Kamil-Muhammed OSENI

      The republican were responsible for all of this. The super rich white guys wanted Obama out at all cost.The tea party couldnt stand him anymore becaues he is not as America as them.The election and result was not about economy,foreign policy or anything at that it is about demographics and beliefs and affiliations.Obama to some is a better of two poor candidate and he is more trusted than Mitt.Wall streetsa and most blue chips company pumped monies to the Republican just ti unseat Obama who they belief tend more to the middle class. I truly hope next election will be based on something more comprehensive and real than this last one.

    13. CommentedGodfrey Barborous

      The same idea holds true for other institutions, such as universities. Ivy Leagues including Princeton and Harvard receive a disproportionate amount of money from “the rich” – hardly a democratic choice for research and scholarship.