As we get older, time seems to fly with increasing speed. When we are young, we perceive that we have an unlimited number of days, but years later we understand with frightening clarity that when today is gone, it's gone forever and we can't get it back. But if there is one sphere of our lives that persists in dragging itself slowly and painfully across our consciousness, the one thing that we wish would get moving, it's the contrived theater of politics in the year of a general election.
Maybe it is the paradoxical nature of mounting a national campaign in which candidates have to keep appealing to their bases of support, while simultaneously currying favor with the less rabid, less ideological and more moderate swing voters who decide elections. This is most often accomplished by candidates' being vague and impossibly general; by espousing mutually-exclusive views on the same subject; and by making grand promises that are generally accepted to be impossible to keep.
Perhaps it's also the corrosive pervasiveness of campaign money, whose poisonous influence will this year be fueled literally by billions of dollars. Although democracy certainly costs money, the sheer vulgarity of the expenditure is astonishing. Part of the problem is that the campaign lasts so long: potential candidates are already collecting cash for the race in 2016, and by the time the election actually takes place---after years of campaigning, primaries, caucuses, speeches, gaffes, explanations (but not apologies) for the gaffes, and analyses---even political junkies will be pretty sick of the spectacle.
And the foolishness is not confined to the national candidates. Many billions more will be spent by aspirants to the House and Senate, governorships, state legislatures, and races for such diverse positions as sheriff and judge. It may come as a surprise to many people that, although federal judges are appointed, the large majority of state and local judges are selected through the ballot, a more equitable procedure but not one that necessarily produces a product of higher quality.
Through the varying iteration of this process, incompletely sketched over 200 years ago, we have learned several things about our elected officials.
--First, those selected will usually be the ones with the characteristic of being the most popular...but only in terms of an imprecise definition of popularity. Clearly the president is not necessarily one of these, since he is selected indirectly, with the power of the states, very important in 1787, trumping those of individuals still today. And it is the state legislatures that prescribe the boundaries of electoral districts, thus influencing directly the political character of the US House of Representatives. If it's frustrating, it's because it was designed that way.
--Second, although we have been promised many things by politicians in the last 225 years, the overwhelming majority of these promises have been empty pandering. The president can't do anything unless the Congress agrees and, most important, appropriates the money for it. He can act as the Commander-in-Chief only to the extent that the Congress gives him leave and resources to do so, and there is no policy he can execute if the Congress is strongly enough against it to stop him. His promises are no different than those of politicians for all offices, every one should be treated with healthy skepticism, and the bolder the promise the more skepticism is advisable.
--And third, the winning candidate in almost all cases is the one who has spent the most money. It is amusing to witness the public criticism by politicians about the evil of accumulating wealth, since it is only with money that people get elected in the first place. And once in office these these same people become very protective of their own money and perquisites, for example enjoying a pension that is vested after only five years of service in the Congress. The hypocrisy is stunning.
It is no surprise that our political institutions earn the lowest approval rating of any entity in the country, but it is a dangerous thing. There is an observation, attributed to a wide variety of people, that the government that governs least governs best, and Americans generally would like to see government off their backs as much as is practicable. But the people are also mightily chastened by the paralyzing ineffectiveness of their elected officials, their obfuscation and their inertia. The people perceive dangers and problems and are thoroughly disgusted with the obstacles that officials place on the road to resolving them. November seems like it is years from now, and so there's still plenty of time for officials to get serious about their obligations to the people who put them in charge.