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The Death of Politics?

Steven Johnston: Campaign fatigue lethal to democracy

By Rachel Piper
Photo by Rachel Piper // Steven Johnston
Posted // November 27,2012 -

No matter how sickening you found the 2012 presidential election, don’t stop caring about politics—it’s bad for democracy, says Steven Johnston, the Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy and Public Service at the University of Utah. Before coming to the U in January, Johnston taught at the University of South Florida for about 17 years. One of his goals as chair is to get the wider Salt Lake City community involved with and offer feedback on the political discussions at the U. Friday, Nov. 30, he’ll present a conference called “The Death of Politics?” (Tanner Humanities Building, Room 143, 215 S. Central Campus Drive, 9:30 a.m.-1:05 p.m.).

People are sick of hearing about the election. Why are you bringing it up again?
I think the very fact that people want it behind them is a bad sign for a democracy. That’s a sign that campaigns are revolting in some way. It’s a longtime American sentiment that we want politics over and done with—we think that other areas of life are more important. That’s lethal for a democracy—how do you get people interested in it, committed to it and involved in it if their first sentiment is, “I’ll only be involved for as long as necessary and then I want it over and done with”?

There are a lot of people who want it over and done with, but I think that’s because of the quality of the campaign. You have this treatment of an election campaign as not about issues, not about the collective future or even about anyone’s individual lives—it’s a horse race: Who won the debate, who’s doing what in the polls. That’s no way to get people interested in politics. The people coming to this conference will be talking about things of substance, things that actually touch people’s lives.

So, was the 2012 presidential election the death of politics?
I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people were dissatisfied with the campaign. I think it was a combination of things: 1. A lack of substance—very important issues weren’t being discussed: climate change, the Supreme Court and several judicial appointments that might be made in the next several years. A lot hinges on that. Right now, the Roberts court is taking up Section 5 of the voting-rights act—that’s going to be an important case. A lot of people were fearing for women’s reproductive rights—that Roe v. Wade might be overturned. None of that was particularly discussed.

Also, one of the Romney campaign advisers said in the midst of the campaign something to the effect of, “We’re not going to be governed by the facts.” That also has disturbing implications for a democracy—how are you even supposed to have a conversation between contending parties, even antagonistic parties, if one side feels that it can just say anything that it wants? It’s not that campaigns haven’t historically played fast and loose with facts, but this reached unprecedented levels with this campaign.

It’s not just the Republicans who were problematic. In the past several years, Barack Obama has expanded the presidential powers that George Bush developed when he was president, the so-called unitary executive. Obama now claims that any U.S. president has the right to assassinate American citizens abroad—without trial, without jury, without a judge. That’s just mind-blowing. That wasn’t discussed.

That’s one of the reasons for this conference. And it’s also a conference that’s derived from a special issue of the journal Theory & Event—one of the leading political-theory journals in academia. It’s a quarterly, but it likes to do special issues when something interesting is happening. There was a special issue when the Trayvon Martin shooting happened, there was one over the Occupy Wall Street protests, and we’re doing one for the election as well, in early 2013. People are contributing articles to that, I figured why not invite all of them here to speak?

What’s the jist of the “women are not an interest group” discussion?
One of the concerns is that women are only treated somehow as an interest group in terms of parties want women to vote for their candidate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re speaking to issues that concern women in meaningful ways. And so you have Romney, for example, blaming Obama for making worse the economic conditions. So that’s a reason to vote for the Republicans—Obama’s had his four years, he’s had his chance and he hasn’t made things better; now it’s time for someone else, a job creator. Since it’s only about getting women to vote for him, that’s as far as it goes. Well, why is it that women have fared in a particularly difficult way in the last four years or even longer? One of the reasons is that there have been an incredible number of layoffs at the state level of governmental employees—of teachers, for example. Republicans have been blocking the ability of the federal government to lend money to the states—even though the federal government can borrow at historically low rates so that states won’t have to lay off teachers, police, fire workers and the rest.

But that issue doesn’t actually get talked about, so instead of talking about why women are faring particularly badly, you just have the campaigns jockeying for women’s votes, and that means that they’re going to treat it in the most minimal way possible, come up with slogans like “Obama’s had his chance, now we need to move in a new direction” but not actually talk about the issue. It looks like they’re talking about it, but they’re not actually talking about it, which is an insidious effect in our politics because you think you’ve done something, but you haven’t, so it doesn’t get the attention that it needs.

It’s easy for Utahns to feel powerless in national politics. Is there a way that can change without going so far as to quit one’s job and join a campaign?

Well, there’s an easy solution, and that’s to abolish the Electoral College. Then everybody’s vote matters. If you are a Republican in Utah and you’ve decided to vote for Romney, in some respects your vote is irrelevant because you know he’s going to win. Or, if you’re a Democrat, you know that your vote makes no difference, at least on the presidential level. If you eliminate the electoral vote, everyone’s vote counts equally, and you’ll see campaigns moving all over the place. And I think that’s a good thing. Of course, the Electoral College is probably not going to be overturned. But at its core, it’s undemocratic and should be abolished.

What else is broken?
You also have the problem that state legislators draw congressional districts. So what happened after the 2010 census is that Republicans, who are in control of more and more state legislatures, they were drawing congressional boundaries so that seats are safe. You have elections that are not contested. And when Democrats are in control, they do the same thing—it’s not party-specific. You’ve got to have a nonpartisan way of drawing these boundaries so that they are competitive. When people see that there’s no question about who’s going to win the congressional election, people will say, “Well, why should I bother? It’s already been decided,” and oftentimes you will see candidates running unopposed. That’s shocking in a democracy, that people will run unopposed—and that means that the primary of one party decides the election, which is shocking in its own way.

The power of incumbency is just so extraordinary, which gets us back to the need for campaign-finance limits and the public funding of elections so that incumbents don’t have quiet the advantages that they do. But there’s no question that politics are stacked in the favor of those who occupy seats of power.

Is there a Plan B?
As disheartening as campaigns can be at a national level, I’m not sure that’s always the case at the local level. Local politics oftentimes are different—you have school-board elections that are extremely important, the Salt Lake County mayoral election was close, the Matheson-Love election was very close. The more local you can get, that can be a meaningful form of participating that national campaigns oftentimes are not.

I think it’s important for people, perhaps especially young people when they are first becoming politically interested and active, to keep in mind that the state does not enjoy a monopoly on politics. Yes, the state does possess great power and the major political parties vie for control of its institutions, but as the Occupy Movement suggests, politics can emerge, even erupt anywhere, anytime. We don’t have to wait for election cycles to engage in politics. Voting is just one aspect of it, and politics shouldn’t be reduced to it.

What makes this conference different from other rehashes of the election?
One of the things that people might find interesting about this is that these are essays that are not traditionally scholarly—not based on extensive research, for example. People are bringing their particular theoretical interests to bear on certain issues that they’ve found important in the campaign. But they’re also looking for feedback. Ordinarily, the public isn’t involved in research. This will be a more theoretically sophisticated approach to politics, but they want to know how people think about this. People from Salt Lake can actually engage in conversation like they might have in the local pub with people who are thinking about politics, who take it seriously. That’s how these essays then get improved, and people get more thoughtful about politics. There’ll be a good 45 minutes for discussion on each panel.

And it’s not a partisan event. If the theorists that I’ve invited are partisans of anything, they’re partisans of democracy with a small d. It’s not going to be a rehash of the election—they’re going to be critical of both parties, they’re going to be critical of the campaigns, because their concern is with the health of American democracy. If the campaign seemed nauseating and fatiguing and boring, this isn’t going to be like that; it’s not going to be a reflection of that, it’s going to be a response to and a criticism of that, and then moving in new directions.

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Posted // December 16,2012 at 17:50

If anyone would like to sign my petition abolish the electoral college, go to https://petitions. whitehouse. gov/petition/abolish-electoral-college-all-50-states/KCHhP0P0.


Posted // November 28,2012 at 13:04

A survey of Utah voters showed 70% overall support for the idea that the President of the United States should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states.

Support for a national popular vote, by political affiliation, was 82% among Democrats, 66% among Republicans, and 75% among others.

By gender, support was 78% among women and 60% among men.

By age, support was 70% among 18-29 year olds, 70% among 30-45 year olds, 70% among 46-65 year olds, and 68% for those older than 65.

NationalPopularVote. com


Posted // November 28,2012 at 13:02

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).


Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.


When the bill is enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.


The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.


In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.


The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions with 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.



Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc