Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of my first vote. Since 1972, I have voted in 12 presidential elections and 11 previous midterm elections, and on many other occasions.
Like many other voters, I ponder what my vote might mean, and the answers are far from reassuring.
At the risk of old times, I must confirm what young voters often ask: yes, elections are worse than they were, or at least they do less to direct the course of the nation and each state.
American elections since 1800, when political parties were formed, have always been hotly contested and “bashing” relatively common, but by Election Day much was known about what each candidate, and the parties behind them , represented.
Now, aside from the eternal truth that Republicans are always for tax cuts, Democrats generally aren’t, it’s hard to say. What passes for “problems” in the 24-hour news cycle seems more destined to elicit reactions – negative ones – than anyone could accomplish after the election, when the real work was beginning.
This year, the Supreme Court is on the ballot – not somewhere the most powerful court in the world should be, but the justices brought it about themselves.
It didn’t start with the Dobbs decision. If you want to identify the point at which the election has dramatically worsened, you’ll start with the court’s infamous decision in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission.
It was just days before President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, where he challenged the court on another 5-4 ruling that completely changed our constitutional system. Judge Samuel Alito, later author of Dobbs, could be seen saying “not true”, but Obama was right.
Five judges moved to destroy what was left of our campaign finance system — specifically the McCain-Feingold Act, which favored small donations and limited big ones, in favor of rewarding wealth.
They did this on the false premise that money equals “speech” – false, because in a democratic system it provides infinitely more “speech” to those who can buy ads and fund campaigns than the average citizen.
We see the results. Not only has the amount spent on campaigns skyrocketed, multiplied by 10 or even 20, but the large proportion of new spending comes from “black money” groups that are not accountable to the public, even concealing the identity donors.
It’s not that the new “system” creates an advantage for one party; after an initial boost for Republicans in the crucial 2010 election, Democrats also learned to raise excessive amounts.
It’s that almost all of the spending goes into attacking the opposition – trying to convince us of the horrible things that will happen if the other side wins. The whole notion of party platforms and comparing candidates on issues is all but gone.
Combined with the infections spread by “social media”, it is a toxic stew that does not seem to deter voting but makes it much more difficult to decide.
It might have mattered less if we hadn’t already had the 2020 election. Now, at the behest of the defeated candidate denying his loss, hundreds of candidates will not pledge to accept the results unless they don’t win.
A democratic system cannot survive this thought, if it is supported. There are too many examples of elected leaders who, once elected, refuse to cede power.
In the United States, the first president to lose re-election was John Adams, defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Adams was unkind, leaving Washington before Jefferson arrived; his successors created the tradition of attending the next inauguration – another tradition suddenly ended in 2020.
In our time, elected leaders in Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, and of course Russia, won once and then refused to leave, with chilling consequences for the whole world, not just Ukraine. China may well be next.
Could it happen here? Of course it could. The only way to prevent it is to take our votes more seriously than the polls, the media and many candidates think.
A few months ago, the feeling that this could be the most important election of our lives was often heard; it hasn’t been audible lately.
Yet this thought too should guide us. All of our other concerns can be thwarted if we fail to do this great thing well.
It may well come out. After years apart, Adams and Jefferson began writing to each other, a correspondence that, exploring the dimensions of their brand new country, ranks with the Federalist journals, which helped create the Constitution.
Jefferson and Adams left this world as friends – a mildly comforting thought as we come to terms with what happens after November 8th.
Douglas Rooks, an editor, commentator and journalist from Maine since 1984, is the author of three books and is currently researching the life and career of an American Chief Justice. He welcomes comments to [email protected]
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