The only constant in this nation’s presidential election cycle is that it has a fixed period that is accompanied by the few harmonics of congressional, state, and local elections. It is the four-yearly return to the presidential ballot box that draws the most attention, the most money, and the most hype. Participants in the campaigns for the highest office in the land try their damnedest to convince every voter that their candidate is the one to save the nation and that the opposing candidate is akin to the devil and intent on bringing disaster to the country and its citizens. Since all campaigns before the primaries and the two remaining campaigns thereafter have the same goals and follow the same script, the number of truths and untruths fly about indiscriminately and only serve to emotionally tie voters to one candidate or, failing that, emotionally separate them from the other. Many voters have been, and will continue to be, turned off by these tactics and, with Election Day still months away, will have decided to sit this one out. In the mean time the campaigns and their candidates continue their battle for the remaining, more committed voters. It may be that the elimination of the sporadic voter is a calculated gambit. Votes by this group may be much more unpredictable than that of the more frequent voters. Thus having reduced the electorate to the two partisan camps with a number of independents in the middle, the campaigns can now switch over to the task of coaxing the undecided to their side. Issues are tested for effectiveness on focus groups before they are launched. Policy promises are tailor-made and almost everyone knows that they can’t be kept by the candidate once in office. But, if they aren’t too wild, voters will want to believe them and eventually cast their vote for the candidate that appeals the most.

The candidate that wins does so, of course, with the votes of a majority of the participating electorate. Thus the partisans of the majority are euphoric over their win. A great high has been reached. And the partisans of the losers slip into an immediate depression which usually lasts until the activity for the next election gives them renewed hope.

Almost immediately the winning candidate, the president elect, will start to downplay the promises: economic times are such that …, Congress will have its voice, unforeseen events may …, and there is the national debt, as always. And, indeed, come January the new president is sworn in and the Whitehouse and Congress begin their negotiations over policy and legislation and, voila, promises cannot be kept, other forces prevail, and new conditions present themselves. The voters, who pushed these officials into office on that wave of promises, have no recourse for another four years – maybe two if you consider the House and one third of the Senate – and are quickly sent into a funk. “I told you so,” say the voters who didn’t vote, and those of voting age, who didn’t bother to register, feel vindicated in their convictions that “they are all crooks and they do whatever they want anyway,” and continue their perpetual funk.

What would be the antidepressant that could cure us from this political bipolar disorder? The communication between politicians and electorate is driving this cycle. Because our election cycle is constant there is no reason for politicians to spend a lot of money on communications with the voter in off-years. In European countries messages from candidates are most intense before elections, just like here, but the intensity is only marginally higher than the communications during the off-years. There are two reasons for this: because there is no private funding campaign funds are limited to membership dues, and political parties are given public broadcasting slots to present their causes to the public on a regular basis. This ensures a constant communication of comprehensive messages to the electorate. It is a low volume stream of information that emphasizes the party programs in fairly fine detail. The multi-party democracies offer a greater basket of nuanced programs. Coalitions are formed after an election and the parties’ performance is easier visible to the public. In the U.S. both the Democratic and Republican parties are coalitions by themselves and the unified message is much more difficult to attain so that it often looks muddled. The voters have to choose between all these aspects of the party programs. This is very difficult to do. Therefore they rely on the candidates to define the party programs and, as a result, there is no continuity of programs since every candidate brings his/her own issues to the campaign. The result is a cycle from greatly hyped new ideas and promises followed by a deep disappointment and funk during which the country has effectively eliminated half of its voting age public. This, surely, is not the definition of a great democracy.

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With the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate John McCain believed that he had secured the Republican base. He may well have secured much more than that. With Ms. Palin’s introduction to the political discourse the more extreme elements of the GOP have been stirred up from the bottom to show their ugly heads with phrases such as, “he is a Muslim”, “his name is Hussein”, “he hangs out with terrorists”, and “he doesn’t respect our flag”. These have become the slogans with which the McCain campaign presumably expected to rally the faithful. From my experience as an Obama campaign volunteer in Western Virginia I can report that it was not working as intended. Many moderate and old-time Republicans shared their disgust. Among them the number that expressed a vote for Obama was roughly equal to the number that would not vote at all. One has to wonder what it is that got McCain in this position. By his own admission he plays to win and, again by his own admission, he is sometimes blinded by that ambition. If that is the case here than it is a small step to surmise that he either, A. approved of or, worse, initiated the venom, or, B. had lost control of the campaign. The forces he unleashed now lead a life of their own and will be very difficult to reign in. By equating Obama with terrorism he has given the Timothy McVeigh’s at the bottom of the barrel license to conduct their despicable acts. Are they the patriots that he called to save the nation from the terrible threats of socialism, another wild accusation?

John McCain’s task of uniting the GOP around him was an impossible one. He was the accidental candidate. On the core emotional issues he was not the party’s ideal representative. He survived the primary process because he stood out as the elderly statesman in a field of mediocrity. In a desperate attempt to appeal to the party base he dug too deep and came up with a running mate who was a non-intellectual radical that appealed to those who wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. No wonder intellectuals such as George Will, Colin Powell, Paul Volker, David Brooks, and Chuck Hagel were not impressed, and have, to different degrees, expressed a preference for Barack Obama.

In contrast the Obama campaign was low-key but high-exposure. Large numbers of volunteers went door to door for a neighborly chat, about issues. There was no pressure – the voters were doing most of the talking. And, sometimes to their surprise, many found themselves leaning in Obama’s direction. We never brought up the subject of John McCain or Sarah Palin. We asked which issues were important and, if invited, would clarify a point or two about taxes or health insurance. We regarded every voter as an intelligent human being and we respected their positions, also when they disagreed and declared themselves for McCain. We didn’t argue. And, we were, occasionally, at the receiving end of rather abusive language. It often included the list of words listed above and was always delivered in a highly emotional tone of voice.

This election was no longer a choice between Obama and McCain. This election had become about how the Republic serves its voters, whether “The People” were allowed to make their choices based on their interests rather than their emotions, and whether we would be governed by the most able rather than the most belligerent.