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Don’t forget issues and ideals during election season

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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As the Republican field battles for the party’s nomination, President Obama’s re-election campaign is out in full force. Last weekend’s Pride festivities in Iowa City were flooded with enthused Obama volunteers, eager to get as many people “in” as possible.

The pundits and prognosticators, their sights set on November 2012, have decided that the decisive question (after the state of the economy) is whether Obama will be able to rally his liberal base. The Republicans, at least, have more of a choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, politics continues. Not the partisan sniping and congressional sex scandals blasting the airwaves but the earnest attempt to alter policies and shape America’s future. The brief fervor surrounding the four-year presidential election runs the risk of eclipsing current policy struggles and providing an avenue for reflexive rejection of the ruling party — regardless of how little substantive change might occur.

And with campaigns stretching longer every cycle, Americans can’t afford to put policy on the back burner or subsume political complaints to party loyalty. Not only are elections ideally a minor part of a functioning democracy, but they also ought not to serve as an appeasement on contentious issues.

Iowa may be facing a flood of Republican candidates (and Obama is expected to campaign heavily, because it is a swing state), but it also struggles with a budget stalemate. Iowa’s senators are involved in talks about agriculture subsidies, which directly affect thousands of Iowan farmers.

These issues won’t be highlighted by the upcoming campaign. And the issues that are — such as the deficit and America’s foreign wars — may not be enacted after the election, with savvy grass-roots organizers pacified following the selection of their preferred candidate.

It’s one of the pitfalls of the American two-party system. University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington says the candidates still focus on governing, but the public’s basis for evaluating the incumbent changes. Instead of evaluating the president in absolute terms, the public starts evaluating him in comparative terms. This perception has tangible effects.

Covington says that public-opinion polls consistently show a decrease in approval ratings in a president’s first three years and an increase in approval ratings in the last three years (provided he wins re-election). This means, for example, that instead of holding Obama’s feet to the fire over the war in Libya, voters may be considering whether he is handling the war better or worse than any of the Republican candidates could. The public stops looking for the best policies and starts looking at the better ones.

The American public can sit back and assume that the previous four or eight years’ troubles will be reversed by simply electing someone of the opposite party. Once every four years we have a referendum on the status quo, ignoring that challenges to the status quo typically exist in the form of policies, not candidates. Obama’s presidency didn’t end the war; it ended the visible antiwar movement, which in hindsight was an anti-Republican movement.

In other words, it’s a regular intrusion of realism — perhaps best dubbed “fatalism” — into the American political arena. Constrained by the two-party system, voters are bound to choose the lesser of two evils while losing any ability to push actual, substantive issues. Intra-party dissenters are discouraged from voicing their complaints, lest they damage their candidates’ chances; differences between parties are hopelessly exaggerated.

Even seasoned politicians know how campaign season can distort the issues. In a 2010 opinion piece for The Hill, former House Republican leader Robert H. Michel wrote, “Campaigns reduce issues to their simplest form. Governing unravels their complexities. Campaigns define issues; governing resolves them.” He was writing to encourage new House Republicans to communicate with Democrats, but the sentiment holds true: With its grandiose posturing and interruption of the usual deliberation, campaign season has both a reductive and a paralytic effect.

The problem with American voters isn’t that they’re uneducated about candidates or that they pay too little attention to politics; it’s that the political sphere overemphasizes elections. After the post-election high wears off, instead of holding candidates accountable on their promises and on the issues that matter, Americans resign themselves to voting differently in the future — or taking whatever is offered to them. And when the bloated campaign season lumbers into sight, substantive discussions and policy drives are shoved aside.

The coming years can be better, but only if Americans refuse to be lulled by hypnotic campaign promises — or be mollified by promises that one candidate is at least better than the other. A vibrant, politically engaged citizenry requires a firm commitment both to lofty ideals and to action on policy issues.

American politics doesn’t begin and end with elections. Neither should the attention and participation of American citizens.


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