It is difficult for people living outside the United States who read newspapers like the Hindustan Times or watch CNN to escape news of an American presidential election, or to not have at least an inkling of the way democracy operates in the world’s pre-eminent superpower. Americans don’t have equivalent knowledge of other voting systems. I live in New York, a worldly city, and as a matter of course, I pay attention to the way elections work elsewhere. But it cannot be overstated the extent to which America, for its inhabitants, is a continent of a country. Its citizens are not in the habit of looking beyond their borders to gain wider cultural or political perspective. As a result, the byzantine and interminable process by which Americans arrive at electing a president passes too often without critique.
That seems to be changing. Thanks to its often ugly and demoralising course, many Americans are waking to the obscene length of this presidential campaign. Singer Cheryl Crow made headlines recently when she launched a petition to shorten the duration of the US elections. When Americans go to the polls on November 8, this campaign will have lasted 596 days, nearly two years. Crow’s petition doesn’t suggest any concrete ways to trim that number, but it has nevertheless won tens of thousands of signatures. Subjected to months of tangerine-tinged outrage from Donald Trump, Americans are growing exasperated. Must presidents be elected this way?
There are several good reasons to shorten elections.
First, and most importantly, a shorter election would be cheaper. In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent $2.6 billion in their battle. Costs in 2016 won’t be as high thanks to social media. Much of this lavish outlay comes not from the candidates themselves but their inscrutable “Super PACs”, ostensibly unaffiliated organisations swollen with corporate donations. According to the BBC, the 2012 US election was 120 times more expensive than the 2010 UK parliamentary election, which is extraordinary even if you account for the relative size of each country and the difference in political systems. Abbreviating the campaign would make American politicians less dependent on the largesse of the elite and less beholden to moneyed interests.
Second, the presidential campaign sucks up political oxygen for inordinate periods of time. Nearly half of an American president’s four-year term is consumed by the subsequent election. Governance and policy are tailored at an early point to the demands of re-election. At the same time, issues that have nothing to do with the election get neglected in favour of the coverage of poll numbers and electoral horse-trading. By comparison, in Mexico, to the south, elections by law can only last 147 days. Canadians, to the north, bemoaned the length of their 2015 election, which took a quaint 11 weeks.
Third, the lengthy campaign doesn’t test a candidate’s ability to devise policy or negotiate political hurdles, but simply how well that candidate campaigns. Defenders of the sprawl of US elections argue that the primary process and the months between the party conventions and election day ensure that candidates are “well vetted”. Condensed primaries in particular, they argue, might only produce poor presidents. Yet the current system managed to inflict upon the country a totally unequipped and outlandish presidential candidate: Donald Trump. He has been successful because he understood the extent to which US presidential campaigns were simply media spectacles. The long duration of the campaign means that candidates are measured less in terms of policy acumen, diplomatic skills, or insight than by how well they command the limelight.
Indeed, so much of the coverage of the campaign is about nothing more than the campaign itself, on fluctuating poll numbers and televised gaffes. Every election cycle, Americans enter a hall of mirrors, searching for substance in a maelstrom of breathless and impressionistic media “content”. Perhaps that is why they are less inclined to vote than citizens in other democracies; a Pew study in August showed that the US ranks 31 out of 35 developed countries in voter participation. The media — especially TV networks — are the great beneficiaries of the money spilled each election, along with the industry of Beltway consultants and lobbyists that flutter about the campaign teams. Surely there are better ways to spend billions of dollars.
No electoral system is perfect, but the American system is overdue for renovation. In the age of instant communication, all primaries could be held on the same day rather than drawn out over many months. There need not be such a long gap between the conventions and election day itself. Discussing her petition on Fox News, Crow put it flatly: “Two years of a campaign does not educate anyone any more than it would have if it had been six months.”