Campaigning and democracy: Demo-Cra(p)-See

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We have run into a troubling problem in American politics. Of course, there are so many, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask for specifics. Here it is, plainly: The traits of a great campaigner are not in line with the traits of a great president.

To campaign well, one must:
(a) Be noticed.
(b) Obtain massive amounts of money through whatever funding methods produce results.
(c) Generate excitement.
(d) Pretend to know something about everything, or everything about something.
(e) Speak well, debate well, and anticipate arguments from the other side.

Ultimately, a great campaigner must be a divisive, cunning, attention-whore who somehow keeps the faith of the American people.

As for the most respected presidents of the past, we generally regard traits like honesty, assertiveness, knowledgeability and consistency to overrule the particularly one-track-minded, strategic willfulness it takes to fly around the country and talk people into voting for you.

It’s not that there isn’t an overlap; there certainly is. The problem is that it’s difficult to run a campaign with integrity, and hard to run a country without it. If you lie during a campaign, you have only to cover it up or shame your opponent to sustain a bit of momentum. And that momentum could get you to the final lag, to the ultimate best seat in the House. If you lie during the presidency, each lie carries with it the historical significance of its impact upon policy. For example, lies that lead to something like a change in trade or a decision to go to war will forever leave you marked. As we have already seen, you may get elected again, but not under the guise of being a “great” president.

However, running a campaign with integrity may be nearly impossible if the goal is to win. At least, that’s what this round of foolhardy candidates taught me this past year. By integrity, I mean that combination of grit and transparency that makes some of your contemporaries hate you while future historians hail you. And sadly historians don’t hail people who campaign — just those who win, who preside over the nation as commander-in-chief.

We’ve watched John Kasich, one of the only qualified and straightforward candidates on the conservative side, be virtually ignored during every debate while Trump seems to gather a larger following despite (or because of?) every other idiotic syllable he utters. As I’m writing this, Sanders-leaning Democrats are facing the fact that Bernie may not win due to Hillary Clinton’s extensive list of special interests donations. (*Note: Admittedly, while Sanders has beaten Clinton in individual campaign donations in multiple states, her New York donors blow his numbers out of the water, unsurprisingly.)

What should surprise — and appall — us, is the fact that we trust people who campaign by putting our best interests out of sight and mind to somehow magically flip that switch when they win. If someone in the midst of a campaign can’t see the big picture, or imagine for a moment that real lies have real consequences, why would we trust them to be an integral part of our history?

It’s a question worth asking.