Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why our electoral process breeds presidential monstrosities

The United States is nearing the end of what has been without a doubt the most destructive and morally bankrupt presidential administration in our history. Many people believe that the next president, whoever is elected, will be a significant improvement over what we, the citizens of the world, have endured for the past eight years. I am not among those who hold that belief. I believe we are destined to continue a moral and cultural decline, and therefore a political and economic decline, for the foreseeable future, no matter who is elected. Our system of government, and especially our way of choosing who will govern, is incapable of producing anything but moral dwarves. (I say this with apology to dwarves, who do not deserve to be compared with American politicians.)

The American form of democracy was devised at a time when candidates for public office rode around on horseback or in carriages. It was a time when candidates met with voters in meetings small enough that the voters could take a reasonable measure of the candidate. Candidates announced their positions in broadsides and other written publications. When votes were submitted on election, the results were often not announced for weeks or even months. The process was slow and deliberate and conducive to reflection.

The American form of democracy that exists today has little in common with its ancestor. Results come in and are analysed at lightning speed. Hours before the polls close in California and Oregon, there is a strong indication of who has won in Maine, Pennsylvania and Florida. Some people still vote after a careful reflection on the positions of the candidates on issues that matter to them, but it is safe to say that everyone is to some extent influenced by factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with actual issues. People spend billions of dollars encouraging Americans to avoid thinking altogether or, if they must think, to think as superficially as possible about tangential matters that have little bearing on the character or the policies of the candidates. The candidate who is most successful in manipulating the irrational emotions of the majority of voters tends to win the election. The candidate who spends the most money tends to be the most successful in manipulating the irrational emotions of the voters.

In today's society election campaigns are conducted in such a way that the winner of an election is almost guaranteed to have bad character. It could hardly be any other way. Our current way of conducting important campaigns makes it unlikely that anyone will enter office except for moral monsters. It is worth reflecting on why this is so.

Character is the sum total of habits that a person has developed. Habits are the consequences of choices that a person has made. Every deliberate, voluntary action reinforces a habit. Everything we have done increases the likelihood that, given similar conditions, we will do a similar thing in the future. This is elementary moral theory and something very much along these lines has been spoken about in detail by the ancient Greeks, by thinkers in India, by Chinese sages, and by elders in traditional oral cultures. If anything can claim to be a universal principle that holds for all human beings, it is something along the lines of what has just been said about the relation between choice, habituation and character.

If we now give a thought to the way that campaigns are conducted in technologically advanced nations in present times, we observe that the pattern followed by almost every candidate—I say“almost” even though I really cannot think of any exceptions—is that the candidate exaggerates his or her own strengths, usually quite dramatically, and magnifies even the smallest (or even the most imaginary) blemish in his or her opponent. The decision to distort the truth through hyperbole is made again and again as the candidate tours the country attending political rallies, and as the candidate approves the contents of televised paid political advertisements. Presidential campaigns in the United States nowadays go on for well over a year, during which time every candidate reinforces the habit many times every day of speaking in a way that is neither balanced nor in accord with reality. Such virtues as truthfulness, fairness, courage, compassion and humility are weakened, perhaps even obliterated. Vices such as pride—regarded in many cultures as the most vicious or sinful personal characteristic of all—and vanity and narcissism begin to rule the candidate's character. No matter what kind of character she or he may have had at the beginning, when candidacy was declared, is bound to have undergone a steady and dramatic turn for the worse by the time the last votes have been counted and the candidate has won.

During my life there have been twelve presidents of the United States. Of these there has been only one that I would allow into my house or welcome into my circle of friends. The rest I would not be willing to have in my company or to have contact with anyone I love for more than a few moments (and then only with plenty of chaperons on hand).

I do not believe this is a matter of bad luck that the United States has had men of such demonstrably inferior character in the White House. I think it is an inevitable consequence of democracy as we know it and as we have let it become. As long as we embrace the status quo of money-driven superficiality and persuasion through fallacy, we will never see anything but more monsters in the White House. I use the word “monster” advisedly. It comes from the Latin word for “warning”. We have been warned repeatedly. Still we seem, perhaps because of the bad character that results from our own educational institutions, unwilling to heed the warnings.