Institutions IV: Electoral Process Victim of Anger, Isolation, Negativity


Up in North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, in an uphill battle to keep her seat, personally apologized to women whose names were used in a campaign piece, which identified them as victims of “domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape.” Some on the list were not. Others had not given her campaign permission to expose them in that manner.

Out West in Southern California, Congressman Duncan Hunter was under heavy criticism for an ad that ties his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, to terrorists. Campa-Najjar’s grandfather, Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar, was involved in the plans to murder Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Germany in 1972. But Campa-Najjar is a Christian, son of a Mexican mother; he was a former White House aide, who had a security clearance from the Secret Service. He has denounced his grandfather’s actions, all according to the New York Times.

These are just a couple of the negative ads, which ran across the country in this campaign season, by Republicans and Democrats and everyone in-between. It has been estimated that negative ads increased by 60 percent in this cycle.

And so, another American election comes to an end tomorrow with a national sigh of relief from spectators weary and angry at not just the ugliness, but its intensity and frequency.

The negativity is not new. It has been with us since the first races run by the founders of the Republic. Negative campaign ads, however, did not come of age until television.

President Lyndon Johnson was the pace-setter against Barry Goldwater in their 1964 campaign with what became known as the Daisy Girl ad, featuring a young child standing in a field, plucking the petals from a flower about to be vaporized in a nuclear bomb explosion.

Years later, came the infamous Willie Horton ad run by the George H. W. Bush campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, which implied that Dukakis was an accomplice in a sexual assault committed by Horton, who had been just released from prison under a Dukakis prison reform program.

Then there was the ad from an organization supporting President Barack Obama, accusing Mitt Romney of complicity in the death of a woman who lost her health insurance as the result of the closure of a plant by a Romney company. Just last year, candidate for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was the beneficiary of an ad depicting a white guy in a pickup truck with a confederate flag and an Ed Gillespie bumper sticker, driving around a neighborhood stalking a Hispanic boy.

The electoral process is an institution built into the foundation of our system of governance. It is the Rube Goldberg machine that produces elected representatives and leaders, from the wards and precincts in big cities and small hamlets to the statewide primaries and national nominating conventions, and ultimately the electoral college. It is also the means by which voters express themselves on hundreds of referenda on everything from building sports stadiums to raising the minimum wage. The process is the stage for all of the comic and tragic performances in American political theater.

The incessant negativity is just one of the chronic problems threatening the integrity of the electoral process and the public trust essential to its success. It is an institution not dealing well with the dynamics of the modern era, changing demographics, rapid transformations in communications and voting technology, and supercilious partisanship and ideological rigidity that oftentimes produce electoral results that do not seem to reflect the country as a whole.

There are three other corrosive elements eating away at the framework of elective politics: money, media, and reapportionment. The money and the media especially so because they provide the stage, lights, and megaphone for the negativity and they tend to nationalize non-presidential elections. All four, taken together, discourage good people from standing for election to public office, discourage public discourse around public policy, and create insurmountable barriers to campaign reforms.

There is too much money in the system, especially the hundreds of millions from outside interest groups and wealthy individuals whose agendas and the extent of their manipulation are oftentimes hidden from public view. The gusher of outside funding distorts the local character of campaigns and elections and it devalues the sovereignty of the individual’s participation in the electoral process.

A Washington Post analysis of spending by outside interests, organs of the political parties, and political action committees estimated that their spending in 2018 will exceed $1 billion. Do you know where 80 percent of that money has gone in this and past elections? Yep, it went to the media–advertising online, in newspapers and publications and on television stations in every market, and much of it negative.

It will be days or weeks before we get the full picture for the 2018 races, but in 2016 the average U.S. House candidate spent $1.5 million. A Senate candidate spent on average $10.4 million. The most expensive race for Senate was run by Senator Pat Toomey of PA, who spent $27 million.

To raise that kind of money, candidates must campaign 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the day one election is over to the start of the next. Outside interest groups spent $164 million on the Toomey race against Democratic candidate Katie McGinty. The total spent by outside groups in the last non-presidential election in 2014 was $670 million, according to the Post. This year outside groups dropped $75 million on the gubernatorial race between Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Republican incumbent Governor Rick Scott. Of that $44 million went to Nelson.

Another concern is the practice of gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative districts in such a way as to favor one party over the other–which dates back to the earliest days of the Republic.

That means in dozens of congressional districts—Democrat and Republican—a representative wins the general election by winning the primary, essentially disenfranchising a majority of the citizen constituency. In 2012, according to Wikipedia, in seven states gerrymandered by Republican state legislatures, Republicans got 50 percent of the vote, but won 68 percent of the congressional seats.

Some of the worst manipulation of district maps has occurred in Michigan, Illinois, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Some states have experimented with open primaries and reapportionment commissions, with some success. There are solutions, but it is a highly complex problem and since gerrymandering usually benefits incumbents more so than challengers, getting to the solutions can be tough.

The legacy or mainstream media do a great disservice to the electoral process, and social media is contributing to its destruction.

The major media suppress and grossly simplify issues of critical importance to the citizenry, playing into the hands of professional campaign operatives whose success depends on their ability to sell Twitter-ready messages and narratives. The media spawn negativity, and bait the antagonists, which serves the media’s political agenda and benefits their bottom line. They are no longer shy about exercising their biases.

This year, they have been successful in nationalizing the campaigns, making the races a referendum on President Donald Trump, realizing the fondest wishes of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and, oddly enough, Mr. Trump, who begs for the attention, regardless of the consequences.

Nationalizing these elections has been particularly damaging, not only because you can’t do it without bringing out the worst of political and human instincts, but because it contributes so much to the dumbing down of the American electorate, denying them access and information about the real issues and the complexities of those issues impacting real lives.

Compare coverage. The attention to the national debt, deregulation, the ramifications of tax cuts or increases on the long-term economy, the crises in American infrastructure, health care and environment, and, too, the unconscionable human suffering on every continent of our world is simply imperceptible compared to coverage given to the media agenda, which really has only one item on it–Trump.

I was struck by an interview conducted by CBS Morning Show host John Dickerson with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York, a real rising star among young legislators. The only subject of interest to the usually adroit and analytical Dickerson was Trump and more Trump. Ryan tried to get a word in edge-wise about the pretty impressive record of the U.S. House in the past two years—more legislation passed since 2009, and real progress in appropriations, opioid prevention, human trafficking, tax reduction, energy development, deregulation, and restoration of our military strength. Dickerson would have none of it. Stefanik couldn’t start a sentence, let alone finish one. And that was one of the better interviews.

The point is that the public is not being informed or educated; the public is being manipulated, and then prodded and provoked into anger and belligerence. The public isn’t being given a chance to govern, and so, in the off years, most don’t try.

It is not just the media, of course; it is the political system we’ve been talking about. The question for the media is whether they are the problem or a respondent to it. They refuse to even raise the question; they are absolutely enchanted with and righteous about what they see in the mirror.

Regardless, we are in a reckless and dangerously volatile environment, which neither the media nor the political community seems to be taking seriously. Maybe the 2018 elections will force change. Highly unlikely.

Assuming Democrats take control of the House, start a pool on how soon the impeachment hearings will start.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.