From the day I graduated high school I was on a conveyor belt. Four years of college. Three years of graduate school. Take the bar exam. Get a job. Get married. Have children. That pretty well sums up my path during my twenties.
It wasn’t a bad path. It was the path. If you were fortunate to go to college in my generation, that was how it went. Granted, not all went to graduate school. The ones who didn’t simply stepped from college right on to the career conveyor belt. They just had a head start on me.
The adventurous and wealthy among us might have squeezed in an adventure during our college years. Some might have spent a few weeks one summer touring Western Europe via rail. Those were the risk-takers of my generation. Nobody went to Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall stood tall and strong in those days, and the other side spelled danger. Looking back, it was all pretty tame.
I am reminded of my own path all the time whenever it crosses the path of a Millenial. My path looks nothing like their path. Millenials are generally defined as those individuals born between 1981 and 1993. According to a recent advisory from Deloitte Consulting, LLP, Millenials are the largest generation after the Baby Boomers. There are approximately 75 million of them, and they seem poised to make a substantial impact on the world’s future.
I did not want to write this article. I tried to suppress it, I really did. I know that by the time the recent election ended, most of us were fed up with it. Most of us are sick and tired of reading about it, hearing about it or even thinking about it. I get that. Nonetheless, and with apologies to readers who may have overdosed on the topic, I need to write a post-election diatribe. Bear with me if you can.
My diatribe really is not about the election results. With a few notable exceptions, I can live with the choices New Hampshire voters ultimately made. What I cannot get past is what voters were subjected to during the weeks and months preceding the election. What I cannot fathom is the extent to which money is continuing to insidiously corrupt the electoral process and our democracy.
The sheer volume of political advertising was overwhelming. As Election Day approached, it took up more and more space inside my mailbox. My response was a political statement of sorts. I threw them out without reading them. I threw out every last one of them – before they could even enter my house. I separated them from the rest of the mail at my mailbox (without looking at them, of course), and walked to my garage to throw them in the recycling bin. In this fashion, I prevented them from even entering the premises.
Then there were the incessant, mind-numbing television advertisements. They were loud, obnoxious, ominous, dark, negative and repetitive. Eventually, I pretended to be Chauncey Gardiner, the odd chap brilliantly played by Peter Sellers in the movie “Being There.” “What would Chauncey think of this?” I asked myself as I watched Frank Guinta’s round head superimposed inside the 1950s TV set on Carol Shea-Porter’s attack ad for the 42nd time. My eventual conclusion was that the advertisements would have ruined the story, as Chauncey would have been too terrified by the portrayal of the outside world to ever leave the house.
A lot of money was spent on those ads. The Washington Post pegged the total amount spent on the 2014 election at $3.7 billion dollars. But to put that in perspective, the article also pointed out that Americans spend $7.4 billion dollars annually on lawn care. So the problem is less the total amount spent on the election, and more the source of the amount spent. According to the Post, all of that money came from only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population of 316 million. To put it bluntly, all that money came from a very concentrated, small portion of the electorate.
There is a lesson here, I think, and an important one to bear in mind when the ads start next week for the 2016 primaries. There is a direct correlation between the concentration of the funding sources that pay for political advertisements and the partisan, extreme and obnoxious nature of the political advertisements themselves.
That alone ought to be enough to get all of us on the campaign-finance-reform bandwagon. Better we federally fund elections to the tune of $10 billion than go through another $4 billion election cycle like the last one. Honestly, I’m not sure I could withstand one.
Our political parties don’t seem to be helping things, either. I tried to listen carefully to the candidates, but I heard very little of substance from any of the ones running for national office. From the Republicans, I heard nothing but negativity. From the Democrats, I heard nothing. For me, at least, the two sides’ comments were white noise. Neither party cared to inform me.
Sadly, voters need to get used to this sort of campaigning. We may have reached the breaking point, where there is so much money at stake for those in the game that they are afraid to say anything that has the slightest possibility of compromising their chances of winning it.
For incumbents, losing an election means giving up the chance to make a fortune in the private sector down the road, perhaps as a lobbyist. For the challengers, winning an election means a ticket to financial freedom and future prosperity.
These same financial stakes drive all the candidates’ advisors, handlers and contributors. There is just so much money at stake inside the game, driving so many private agendas inside the game, that the public agenda may be become lost. Modern politics have become like the lottery: One needs to be in it to win it.
This is tough stuff to think, and to write, because I genuinely like and respect many of the individuals who are brave enough to wade into the political waters. I wish no misfortune, financial or otherwise, on any of them. I agree with Lawrence Lessig, who wrote that the people in the system are not corrupt – the system is. The money has corrupted it.
That grim realization, though, does nothing to change the sinking feeling I have that those on the inside playing the game are increasingly playing it for themselves, and not for the rest of us.