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.