The Death of Politics? 

Steven Johnston: Campaign fatigue lethal to democracy

click to enlarge Steven Johnston - RACHEL PIPER
  • Rachel Piper
  • Steven Johnston

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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