Few would disagree that the 2016 US presidential election in is a low point for American politics. But what has frustrated me over the past months is that there doesn't seem to be much serious conversation about what to do to fix the problem.
On this Sunday's Meet the Press, I was relieved to hear Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker bring up a subject that few in America seem to grasp. The American structure of running election campaigns is an entirely different animal from most other democracies. It is the fundamental structure that is broken. The 'money in politics' problem that Bernie Sanders rails about is only a symptom of the broken foundation.
"What I want to know is, is there ever any serious consideration given to a possibility of just limiting campaigns as other countries do, to two months, say, and make them completely publicly funded?" she asked Debbie Wasserman Schulz, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party. "Is that ever anything that gets serious consideration and would it be possible?"Wasserman Schulz's partisan and vague response seemed to indicate that no, this is not something that gets serious consideration. "Only by Democrats!" she answered. "I mean, certainly, Democrats have supported public financing of campaigns...but Republicans have no interest in changing the campaign finance system. They support the hundreds of millions of dollars of outside undue influence swooping in and weighing heavily on the outcome of any election contest."
Again, we're back to the "bad bad money in politics" trope. And the answer is to limit that money, with some kind of 'McCain Feingold 2'.
Most seem to agree there is an obscene amount of money in US politics. And there have been attempts to reign that in before, such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill of 2002. But the big donors just found ways of working around that, by setting up Super PACs that pretend to not be affiliated with a candidate. So perhaps the better question is, why is all this money in US politics necessary?
The European model
Why isn't this amount of money floating around in the electoral campaigns of European countries? The short answer is - no paid political TV ads.
Television ads, despite being generally loathed and pilloried by the American public, are incredibly effective in convincing undecided people how to vote. And they are the most expensive part of any US election campaign. This year the 2016 campaigns will spend $4.4 billion on TV ads alone. That's the annual GDP of Fiji.
In the UK, such political TV ads are banned. Instead, each party is given an equal amount of time on the country's major stations to make their case. The party is free to do whatever they want with that time. They can make a traditional TV spot or just have one person talking directly to the camera. And every party, whether its Labour or the British National Party, get an equal amount of time.
This is largely the case across Europe. Even in those countries where private political ads are allowed, it is a phenomenon rarely seen because the amount of money required is beyond what is available to most European political parties.
Of course, the stakes are higher in a US election than in any national European election. But even with this in mind, the contrast is bizarrely stark. According to the UK's electoral commission, $45 million was spent in the last election campaign of 2010. In the US election of 2012, $6.5 billion was spent. So the UK, at 1/5th the population of the US, spent less than 1/100th as much on its election.
It isn't just the advertising. The length of campaigns is restricted in Europe as well. Of course, this is partly due to the fact that most countries in Europe are parliamentary democracies rather than presidential systems, and so elections are 'called' with only a few months warning whenever then ruling party falls. In other words, it's not an option to campaign earlier because you don't know the election's coming.
But that's only in the case of snap elections. Elections are foreseen when the governing mandate of the current government is coming to the end of its maximum amount of time. But even in this case, it would make little sense for the candidates to start campaigning any earlier than a few months before the election. In some countries, campaigning before an election is called and parliament is adjourned is illegal. But in most countries such a law isn't even necessary because it wouldn't occur to anyone to actively campaign so early.
The end result is, let's face it, drastically less entertaining elections. Everywhere in Europe it's the same, boring placards put up around the country with the candidate's face and an uninspiring slogan. Under the law they can't do much more than this. But while it may not be sexy, it does encourage people to focus on the issues of the party rather than the personalities of the candidates.
Land of the free politicians
Contrast this with the situation in the United States. Members of Congress have to get themselves re-elected every two years. Every two years! They can't do so without television advertising in their home districts. So they spend virtually all their time raising money for this TV advertising.
The simple answer? Ban TV advertising.
The even simpler answer? Expand Congressional terms to four years.
The US could go even further toward the European system. Restrict election campaigning to two months before the election. Publicly finance campaigns, and give guaranteed advertising spots to all candidates who can collect enough signatures. Not only would this keep big money out of politics (the candidates would have no way to spend it and therefor no need for it), it would also disrupt the two-party lock on US politics that few in America are happy with.
How are you going to have more than two parties when the process of running campaigns is so long and so enormously expensive.
So why doesn't America have this already? Why did America go in the direction of restriction-less campaigning, while Europe put restrictions on what people can see and hear before an election?
This is America after all, and freedom of speech reigns supreme. The mere suggestion of limiting somebody's speech by telling them where and when they can campaign is antithetical to the American psyche. And the idea that the state needs to protect people from themselves (by not allowing them to see deceptive TV advertising) seems paternalistic to the American mind.
Americans love their free-market capitalism, and they love their free marketplace of ideas. And so, there is no attempt to seriously tackle the out-of-control democratic system in America. Because to do so would seem un-American.
But as antithetical as it might seem, there is literally no other way to get big money out of US politics. Because as long as you allow politicians to campaign endlessly and in all mediums, the need for more and more money is not going to stop. Further campaign finance reform isn't going to stem the flow, because the money will find a way around. You need to address the cause of the fundraising. Attempts to block the funding itself will be futile.
On this Sunday's Meet the Press, George Clooney said he finds it "obscene" that he has to host $353,000-a-plate fundraisers for Hillary Clinton. But the problem isn't with Clinton, it is with the system. And it is also with the American psyche, which has prevented real reforms to the structure of American campaigning.