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Why? Our presidential campaigns go on -- and on

Posted at 12:29 PM, Dec 10, 2015

If the American political system did not revolve around the two-year-long presidential campaign, Donald Trump would be little more than an ugly rash instead of the long-lasting infection he’s become.

But don’t worry, this isn’t one more condemnation of Trump. There is nothing left to say and the Trump bacteria are immune to traditional civic antibiotics anyway.

A more enduring problem is the political system where a guy like Trump can be the dominant player for months and months, where campaigns eclipse government for two years out of every four.

The political system is not the same as our system of government, which is designed and regulated by the Constitution. I am talking about our system of political parties, primary elections and election campaigns, which evolved without design.

The Constitution has nothing to say about political parties. Primary elections were unheard of for the country’s first 100 years (and they still are in almost every other modern democracy). Senators were not chosen by popular vote until 1913, after all.

But we tend to view our electioneering system to be just as untouchable and sacred as the separation of powers. It isn’t. Indeed, I believe it is the area of American government and politics that would yield the most profitable reforms.

Popular primaries did not become universal until the 1960s. One unintended consequence of this was that the sheer number of elections held in the U.S. doubled. America already held more elections than other large democracies simply because no others have such a short legislative term, two years in the House.

The universal use of popular primaries that are administered by state and local governments, not the parties, is also unique to America. In parliamentary and hybrid systems, candidates are mostly selected by party committees, leaders or conventions and much less frequently by popular vote preceded by campaigns. Taxpayers are not asked to foot the bill for the parties’ candidate selection.

The primary system not only doubles the number of elections, it extends the length of election campaigns. Since the political parties no longer fund campaigns and the Supreme Court has deregulated campaign finance, individual candidates must raise their own war chests. This forces incumbents and challengers to be in perpetual campaign mode. A flourishing industry of campaign professionals has grown up around this. Again, there is nothing similar in any other country.

Another force of evil emerged in the 1970s when presidential candidates decided they needed to begin their campaigns two years before the next election. Jimmy Carter declared his candidacy for the 1976 election on Dec. 12, 1974, setting the stage for two-year campaigns. As cable news networks and then Internet news services proliferated, the perma-campaigns received more and more coverage; horse race news became the main entrée of domestic news, government the side dish. Today, a year before the general election, Donald Trump is a far bigger story than anything happening in Congress, the courts or the White House. Other countries do not pay attention to intra-party battles for nearly so long.

So if you want some American exceptionalism, this is it, for better or worse. In the eyes of the world’s other democracies, our electioneering scheme is a freak show. And not because of Donald Trump. Weird, scary, fringe candidates crop up everywhere. Sometimes they win. Silvio Berlusconi led Italy for a decade, and he makes Donald Trump look as tame as Donald Duck.

In 1997, British political scientist Anthony King wrote a wickedly insightful book called, “Running Scared: Why America’s Politicians Campaign Too Much And Govern Too Little.” (It deserves a second life.) His essential point is that American politicians “are more vulnerable, more of the time, to the vicissitudes of electoral politics than are the politicians of any other democratic country.”

Perhaps if one measures democracy by quantity not quality, this is a good thing.

I interviewed King recently and he believes the ill effects of election obesity have grown worse. (Click here to listen to a podcast of our conversation.) He’s given the condition a name I intend to pilfer — “electoralitis.” Too many elections necessitate too many campaigns that are too long, too expensive and too demanding of a public servant’s time and wits.

From an economist’s perspective, politicians are incentivized to focus on campaigning, fundraising and expedient policy positions instead of legislating, gaining policy expertise and acquiring power within the House or Senate.

Highly qualified potential candidates that are inspired by government, not politics, are discouraged by campaigns that can be demeaning and painful for families and, if they win, jobs that the public now holds in record low esteem.

A generation of political reform after Watergate focused on campaign finance and failed. Now it’s time to aim higher and wider.

To listen to DecodeDC podcasts and read other blog posts about politics, politicians and policy, click on DecodeDC.com.