Americans feel a greater civic duty to watch heavily-hyped movies and television shows than to vote. More adults watched the final, underwhelming episode of "Seinfeld" than voted in the last presidential election. Although the choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole may not have been as appealing as, say, the choice between Coke and Pepsi, it had to have been a little more compelling than the last "Seinfeld," which had more padding then a temp's resume.
But it didn't really matter that a two-hour, inflated version of what frequently failed to fill a half-hour had "waste of time" written all over it. People felt an obligation to watch it. People lined up in droves for "Titanic" knowing full well that the two romantic leads couldn't act their way out of a wet paper bag, much less a sinking ship. And they go see it again and again, like some big-budget incumbent with the romantic appeal of a maritime disaster. I tell you, 22nd Amendment or no, Clinton could be president forever if he gets Celine Dion to record a mind-numbing, will-sapping love theme for him.
The campaign finance reform debate, while admirable in its efforts to discuss political ethics without ever using the word "bribery," is wrong-headed. The Romans used to skin people alive for bribery, and look where they are now. If they'd listened to the lobbyists and paid farmers not to grow Visigoths, the empire would never have fallen. Candidates wouldn't need to fawn and scrape for campaign contributions if they didn't have to spend so much on TV ads to reach an apathetic and functionally illiterate electorate. By "apathetic and functionally illiterate" I mean people who won't read a book without Oprah Winfrey's prodding.
Who can blame politicians for spending so much on TV ads? How else are they supposed to reach the voters? Electoral turnout isn't too low; it's too high. Too many stupid people vote. Most of us deserve the government we get. The rest of us are just being dragged along to Disneyland.
So what's the solution? Campaign finance efforts will always be diluted until they die. Efforts to limit campaign advertising just get us into that awkward situation we so often find ourselves in, where we're smack against the ACLU and gosh darn it, we know they're right, and they know we know they're right, and they just won't pretend otherwise. The ACLU is the anti-expediency police. Fighting the ACLU is like cutting out your own liver and using it to swat at mosquitos.
The solution is to let candidates spend all they want on airtime, but advertise fake polling places. Oh sure, they'll have cute little pretend voting booths, with the little levers that are so much more fun then filling out ballots, but they won't be connected to anything. And there will be Lotto tickets, of course. The real voting sites will be mentioned only in newspapers, on pages far, far, far from the sports or feature section, like this one. Since you apparently read this page, or, at least, skim through to the bottom paragraph, then you will be one of the lucky few able to determine the fate of our democracy -- if you're not too busy watching television.
© 1998 Randel Shard