Repeating Myself

I recently came across an opinion essay I wrote in 2008 for an academic journal. As we head into yet another election season, I’m repeating it–unfortunately, little has changed.


As another election season comes to a (merciful) close, one lesson is abundantly clear: there is a huge disconnect between the skill sets public offices require and the sales pitches candidates are making.

Campaigns are job applications and the candidates are applicants. We voters are (at least theoretically) the folks doing the hiring. In order to make informed “hires,” we need to know two things: what competencies the job requires, and which of the “applicants” come equipped with the requisite skills as well as our preferred policy positions.

Is this election for mayor, governor or president? We need someone who understands the relevant administrative structure, who is able to assess and recruit knowledgeable technocrats and aides, who has a good grasp of economic and budgetary issues, tax policies, intergovernmental relations and the mechanics of service delivery. It is highly desirable that the applicant be aware of the competing needs and desires of the diverse constituencies to be served and have an ability to communicate with representatives of those constituencies.

Is this an election to fill a legislative seat? In addition to the skills listed above, a policy background is highly desirable—as is a demonstrated ability to work in a bipartisan way with other legislators and members of the executive branch.

For democratic processes to work, voters need information that allows them to match the qualifications of the candidates to the requirements of the position. Unfortunately, it is impossible to sit through the avalanche of misleading 30-second spots, scurrilous Internet postings or negative direct-mail pieces and not conclude that the task is impossible, and that the American electoral process is badly broken.

There is no dearth of theories about what ails us: gerrymandering, too much money, too much rigid ideology, too much partisanship, too many lobbyists, too many pundits and too few real reporters….the list is extensive, and all of the items on that list undoubtedly contribute to the sorry state of today’s politics. But these things would matter less if the electorate were better informed.

Let me just offer a couple of all-too-typical examples. In my state, a Senate candidate is currently airing a spot blasting his opponent—a sitting Congressman—for voting to raise the debt ceiling. This political attack depends for its effectiveness on public ignorance of the difference between a vote to raise the debt ceiling and a vote to add to the national debt. Large bipartisan majorities have raised the ceiling without controversy for many years, because members of both parties have understood that difference.

The national debt is a genuine issue. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the economic system advocates a reckless act that would make it impossible for the U.S. Government to pay bills it has already incurred—and only an uninformed voter would respond positively to such advocacy.

A more typical political attack is some variation on the theme that “Congressman X has been in Washington for Y years, but we still have problem Z.” No one who understands checks and balances and the limits on what any individual member of Congress can accomplish is going to take such a charge seriously. The fact that a political candidate believes this to be an effective argument tells us a lot about that candidate’s respect for the intelligence of the average voter.

There is another possibility, of course. It may be that these appeals are not simply cynical ploys based upon perceived public ignorance. It may be that the people who are running for office actually believe their own arguments. In several races around the country, candidates are promising to enact policies that are clearly unconstitutional. Others are promising to achieve economic results that are mathematically impossible. Knowledgeable folks tend to discount these statements as political games candidates play, but in at least some cases, it’s clear the candidates really don’t know any better.

It would be nice if we could simply shrug off the more embarrassing examples of electoral dysfunction, but the quality of our political candidates ultimately affects both the voting public and the public administrators trying to serve that public.

Just as having a crazy boss makes a private-sector worker’s job more difficult, electing people to set policy in areas they don’t understand is a major barrier to public problem solving. If members of the House Science and Technology Committee reject evidence of global climate change (last year, one member reassured a panel of climate scientists that we don’t need to worry because after the flood, “God promised in Genesis that He would not destroy Earth again, and I believe God”), where will we find the human and fiscal resources necessary to combat global warming and reduce carbon emissions?

There are a number of things individuals might do to help clean up the current mess that is our election system. We can visit fact-checking sites to vet campaign pronouncements. We can work to reform the redistricting process. We can sign on to one of the efforts to reverse Citizens United – the case that opened the money spigot that became the gusher of SuperPac spending. Those of us who are educators must work to raise the levels of civic literacy in this country.

And we all need to withhold our votes from those who run campaigns geared to public passions and popular ignorance.


  1. Like the national debt, we individuals must raise our individual debt limit to pay our incurred debts. Pay increases and COLA increases have aided us, never to the full needed level, so we must find ways to save available money in areas to shift it to obligations we have no control over, such at utilities, rising food cost and…taxes. Republicans want to use “revenue enhancements” to maintain their profit margin by privatization/outsourcing and want to begin by ending Social Security and Medicare taxing on their income. Robbing Peter to pay Paul!

    “The national debt is a genuine issue. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the economic system advocates a reckless act that would make it impossible for the U.S. Government to pay bills it has already incurred—and only an uninformed voter would respond positively to such advocacy.”

    Republicans fully understand the statement above; being unreasonable people at this time, they simply don’t give a shit who pays as long as it isn’t them. With “reckless acts” such as the House committees wasting valuable time and tax dollars by investigating the investigators who investigated them over the past two years regarding sedition and treason and the January 6th Insurrection has reached the acme of unreasonableness by sending Jordan and his committee to New York City to interfere in their legal system to stop the valid legal charges against Donald Trump. Their defense of Trump is accusations of the level of crime in New York City. The “election system”, as written, has not changed but adherence to that system is no longer in evidence as we watch our duly elected government officials ignore their Oaths of Office, all semblance of democracy, Rule of Law and Constitution of the no longer UNITED States of America.

    Republicans are seeking a “cover all Bingo” win in the 2024 Presidential Election and will obfuscate the current Primary Election using distractions such as the “hearing” chaired by Jordan in New York City and the appearance of supporting Democratic Senator Feinstein in her Committee seat. And we watch as the Supreme Court upholds all that is unholy their political party owners brings to them to further deny our civil and human rights.

    “Those of us who are educators must work to raise the levels of civic literacy in this country.” But it appears that the majority of Trump’s Republican MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus, evangelical voters are dropouts who aren’t interested in being educated beyond accepting lies as freedom of speech and mass shootings as upholding the 2nd Amendment.

  2. Make the old Gephardt rule a law. The rule was essentially that no appropriation would pass, without an accompanying increase to the debt ceiling. There is an easier way to do this, ie Congress could pass a simple bill recognizing Amendment XIV, and the requirement in that Amendment to pay the debt, without any further legislative action.

  3. Actually, Genesis doesn’t say that. It says that the Earth will not be purged by a flood again.

  4. I would like to respectfully disagree with my friend, Sheila, on “qualifications” for political candidates. Any examination of current political office holders, especially the US House and Senate, shows that the majority of these folks are “career politicians” and/or former managers/executives in large businesses and/or lawyers from large legal firms. Therefore, it is not surprising that the average net worth of these folks is well in excess of that of the general population.

    So, why are we surprised when they stay cozy with donors/lobbyists and generally ignore the wants and needs of “main street”?

    In the six years of my work with CommonGoodGoverning focused on US House candidates, we learned that it was no accident that our winning candidates had backgrounds such as a small business person, a college professor, an entrepreneur and a non-profit leader. All then demonstrated servant leadership to their constituents, voting against Party wishes when appropriate and ignoring ideology for practical solutions.

    Good, caring, smart people can run a county, city, state or country without political “credentials”.

  5. In today’s desperately broken politics, campaigning is seen as avoiding talking about oneself in favor of downgrading the opponent and declaring their party hostile to the lives of all voters.

    In other words political donors have figured out which politicians are the easiest sell to what demographics and declared those demographics as their “base”.

    He doesn’t work, it never has or will. However it’s very entertaining to voters in the base.

  6. Let me repeat myself; FOLLOW THE MONEY!

    Fox News and Rupert Mordock just paid Dominion $787.5 MILLION to allow them to continue covering up their sedition, treasonous, lies and support of Trump’s January 6th Insurrection. Anyone else now have doubts about Dominion’s basis for their lawsuit or the quality of their voting machines. Fox News has admitted to nothing; this case became one of a Non-Disclosure payoff with Fox News the winner.

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