When democracy turns sour

OPINION
Last updated 16:43 05/11/2012

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OPINION: This week, the United States will have either re-elected its first black president or elected its first Mormon president.

Democrat Barack Obama and his supporters and fundraisers have squared off against Republican Mitt Romney and his supporters and fundraisers.

The campaign has been expensive, brutal and sometimes bitter, but Americans are apparently not keen to ask if there is a better way.

The overall spending of the two presidential campaigns is eye-watering - more than $2.3 billion, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics. Unsurprisingly, that level of spending is a record.

As New Zealand Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson noted, political parties here are allocated a share of a television advertising budget of $3.2 million. In Ohio alone the two presidential campaigns have spent $181m on TV ads.

Can the US afford this?

Add in primary contests and it's hard to see how this ongoing commitment to wasting enormous amounts of money can be sustainable.

With so much money needed to keep the system going, only the naive would assume an absence of vote buying, however this is dressed up. Sound policy-making has to go out the window so support from various groups can be shored up. The stakes are too high for reason to prevail in a debate such as gun control, for example.

To single out just one sector, you can bet that the finance, insurance and real estate sector expects some return on its investment of more than $63m in Mr Romney and more than $22m in Mr Obama.

What we are witnessing is a democracy that is ill.

Passion and loyalty can mask reality only for so long - sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost.

Money can be spent loosely in times of plenty, but these are not plentiful times.

And China is among those countries that doesn't have to worry about maintaining a high-maintenance electoral system.

The US surely has the most inefficient system of democracy in the world.

It is not only unbelievably expensive; the antiquated, polarising system rarely serves the US well in showcasing democracy in action. It cannot help but leave vast groups of the population feeling marginalised. There are elements of uniting behind a cause, but the process is mostly about division. It is relentlessly negative.

Mr Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign was an exception to the pervading negativity, but normality returned for the 2012 race.

Were nearly all the money spent on debating issues like how large the government's role should be, there would be a chance of the spending being useful.

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But the election is not really a discussion of ideas. It is mostly about flinging insults and demonising your opponent.

Campaign TV advertisements are nauseating in that they are often personal attacks of dubious relevance. They are deliberately light on facts. As the Sunday Times observed, some TV viewers have had to put up with as many as 16 political TV ads an hour.

And, that newspaper noted: "It has been one of the nastiest campaigns in living memory."

When, I wonder, will the US face up to the unsustainability of its model of democracy? How much longer can the US continue to exist in a manner that puts the welfare of the coming generations in jeopardy?

It seems the day of reckoning has not yet arrived.

But even superpowers have to pay their bills eventually.

Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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