Rights and wrongs of American elections (1996) | THINK TANK
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Rights and wrongs of American elections (1996) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Welcome to Election Year 1996, which we will
celebrate with a contest that will be announced at the end of this program. Election year — once again, American democracy
is under harsh scrutiny. Many voters are fed up with the tone, the
cost, the length, and the unfairness of our elections. But is all the criticism warranted? Joining us for our discussion are Michael
Barone, senior writer at US News & World Report and coauthor of “The Almanac of American
Politics 1996” and “Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan”; Ronald
Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University and author
of “Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach”; and Stephen Hess,
senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book, “Presidents
and the Presidency.” The topic before this house: rights and wrongs
of American elections. This week on “Think Tank.” In this presidential election year, the quadrennial
hand-wringing has already begun. For example, critics complain about the lack
of civility in American elections, but that’s really nothing new. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy caused
The Connecticut Current to warn that, quotes, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest
will be openly taught and practiced if Jefferson were to be elected.” Pundits also warn that voter turnout is low. In 1992, only 55 percent of eligible voters
cast ballots in the presidential election. But that is actually about the average turnout
for the last 70 years, and it was the highest turnout since 1972. And our election system sometimes yields presidents
who are elected by a minority of the voters. For example, Bill Clinton received just 43
percent of the popular vote. But so what? One American president won his first term
with just 39 percent of the popular vote. That was Abraham Lincoln. How do American elections today compare with
what we have had previously in this country? Gee, it was only 70 years ago that women didn’t
vote, and it was only 130 years ago that blacks were unable to vote. Michael Barone: Well, and even more recently,
30 years ago, that the Voting Rights Act went into effect and effectively enfranchised some
4 or 5 percent of Americans who were Southern blacks, who weren’t allowed to vote under
either the legal system or sanctions of violence in the South. So that’s — we’ve had these, and our
Constitution has been sort of happily elastic in including people that the original framers
didn’t expect to. Ben Wattenberg: More recently than that, we
now have an 18-year-old vote, which we didn’t have. Stephen Hess: Yeah, so you watch the franchise
expand from the original concept of white male property owners. Michael Barone: At a time when most people
were property owners — most white males were. Stephen Hess: Yeah. Yeah. Michael Barone: But nonetheless, yes. Stephen Hess: So we’ve expanded it. Ben Wattenberg: Would we all agree that it
is a more inclusive system? Ronald Walters: Absolutely. Ben Wattenberg: Is there anybody who would
doubt it? Michael Barone: It’s more inclusive. Many people do not choose to be included. I mean, one of the ironies is that our voter
— our turnout is somewhat lower — not hugely lower, as Ben points out — than it
was in the 1960s, even though it’s easier to vote. The Southern blacks, who were excluded from
voting by violence, now can vote since the Voting Rights Act. We make it easier for people to register and
vote, and yet 45 percent of our fellow citizens choose not to do something which is no harder
than getting a driver’s license, which most people manage to do. Ronald Walters: But, you know, Mike, the two
distinguished political scientists had a rationale for that horizontal line you saw — you could
draw a horizontal line in the turnout. Michael Barone: Right, yeah. Ronald Walters: It was that a lot of Americans,
even going back to the last century, simply have not been interested in politics. We have a very individualistic ethos in this
country. Not everybody is interested in politics. And I would extend it one other thing further,
and that is that to the extent that we are a country of immigrants and people from other
places, we are not a homogeneous group, that political participation in this country is
not as organic a proposition as it is, for example, in the countries of Europe. Ben Wattenberg: Is that — Ron, is that good
or bad? Ronald Walters: I think to some extent it’s
bad, and one of the reasons for that, of course, is that you have had then these tremendous
movements in the black community among women to actually expand political participation,
so that elections, of course, are a narrow issue here. The wider question is democracy itself in
the 20th century and the extent to which elections help to further that. Ben Wattenberg: Let me just butt in with one
more thing. Our turnout rates are low, but we do hold
more sorts of elections, as I understand it, than any other country. We elect the sewer board and the school board
and the dog-catching — Michael Barone: We have something like — what
is it, 55,000 elected officials in this country or something. You could fill a stadium with them. Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, I have had numbers larger
— heard numbers larger than that. Ronald Walters: It’s 325,000 or so. Michael Barone: 325,000. Ben Wattenberg: 325,000 elected — that’s
more than — Michael Barone: There’s no stadium big enough
for all those — Ronald Walters: None big enough for that. Ben Wattenberg: That’s three Rose Bowls,
that’s right. Ronald Walters: That’s right. Ben Wattenberg: So that is pretty participatory. Ronald Walters: That’s true. Stephen Hess: But you don’t want a politically
overheated system necessarily. And it is certainly true, as Ron says, that
we’re as apolitical a country as you can get. I mean, you ask people what’s on their mind,
and they’ll tell you their families and their religion and their job and their leisure. And it’ll take more than 10 fingers to get
to a really political question. On the other hand, the most simple act of
citizenship, the simplest thing that you ask people for, the modest glue that holds it
together is simply going and voting. And I still find it very difficult to explain
and very unsatisfactory to know that 45 percent of our eligible voters don’t vote. Ben Wattenberg: All right, let me ask — let
me go on to another idea. It is said that money is poisoning the system
and elections are corrupt. Are elections more or less corrupt than they
used to be? Michael Barone: They’re very much less corrupt. I mean, you used to have, you know, the guy
going in there and giving five bucks to people to vote and things like that. I mean, we’re very much less corrupt. I would almost — Ben Wattenberg: What is the — Michael Barone: I would almost assert the
opposite premise, then, that one of the things our elections are suffering from, to some
extent, is not enough money, at least not enough — because you can’t communicate
in a country of 260 million people without spending some money. You can’t just — you know, no presidential
candidate can go door to door, and no US Senate candidate in a state with two million or 20
million people can contact everybody. Some money is needed to be expended in some
ways. Our system doesn’t expend a vast amount
of money on political campaigns when you compare it to what we spend, quite legitimately, on
advertising soap and other household products. Stephen Hess: Yeah, but the money doesn’t
have to come from the places it comes now. I mean, there — Michael Barone: There are surely better ways
to do campaign finance than we have. Stephen Hess: Exactly. It costs something to run elections, but it
doesn’t have to be the way we finance it. Ben Wattenberg: My question was, specifically,
compared to when? I mean, tell us what the word “bag man”
means. Michael Barone: Well, cash was a major element
as recently as 1972. April 7, ’72, the last day of the old campaign
finance thing, $3 million cash came into the Committee to Reelect the President, President
Nixon, over the transom. They couldn’t count it all. Ben Wattenberg: Bag man was a word when a
guy came in with a sack full of money. Ronald Walters: That’s right, but you know,
you can get it down to the lower level here. We used to have something called walking around
money in campaigns. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Ronald Walters: What we’ve done — Michael Barone: It exists now. Ronald Walters: It exists. And the point I’m making is that you have
simply institutionalized the corruption. It’s still there, but now you have to tell
the Federal Election Commission what you did with the walking around money. So it’s still there, but a lot of it, of
course, through the mechanisms that we have, have been institutionalized. Ben Wattenberg: Well, you know, Suzanne Garment,
who is a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote this book called
“Scandal.” And she says that the reason we have so much
more scandal in our media now is because we have institutionalized it by having these
public reports through the Federal Election Commission, you know, “Where did you get
your money?” and you have to account. And you say, “Oh, you got it from the Dirty
Air PAC,” or, you know, “You got it from the Be Kind to Criminals PAC.” And then you don’t have to do much reporting. You can just go out and say, “Look at what
this” — Stephen Hess: Surely you’re not saying,
Ben, that you’d rather not know? Ben Wattenberg: No, no, I would rather know. I’m saying that the system is much cleaner
now. Michael Barone: In effect, we have a big — we’ve
developed since the 1970s a big loophole in our presidential financing thing called the
soft money loophole. Ronald Walters: Right. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Michael Barone: It’s technically for local
party activities, which sounds very good and sometimes is, but what it’s amounted to
is that we can now have — the $300,000, $500,000 contribution by one individual can
actually be brought to play for the political parties now in a way that it couldn’t when
they first wrote the law. The loophole is eating up the law. And what do you call a man who contributes
$300,000 to, at this point, the Democratic Party? And the answer — it used to be Republican
— is Mr. Ambassador. Ben Wattenberg: Let me move on to one other
item. Our election system and our politics has turned
malign and nasty. And you hear it from all the folks on the
Hill, you know, it’s not fun anymore. I don’t know where it says in the Constitution
that it’s supposed to be fun, but anyway, that everybody’s so nasty. But isn’t it true that in our history elections
have been much, much nastier than they are now? I’ve got a quote here about Lincoln. He’s called — Michael Barone: Ben, we had a civil war after
Lincoln. Ben Wattenberg: — “a rail-splitting buffoon
from the backwoods growing up in uncouth ignorance.” And you’ve all heard those kind of — is
it better or worse today than it used to be? Stephen Hess: Well, we can choose an example
of a past election to prove anything we want. I came into this as a young voter when the
candidates were Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, and I long for that degree of civility
again. Ronald Walters: It’s worse. And one of the reasons it’s worse — not
because I think it’s nastier now than it was before — but the press is a giant megaphone,
and what it does is to amplify the nastiness. Today you can sit and look at C-SPAN and you
can see a member of Congress stand on the floor of the House of Representatives or the
Senate and use a nasty word, and you get immediate reaction to that, whereas this wasn’t the
case, you know, 15, 20, 30 years ago. So I think we’re in a new context where
what people say and what they do is really magnified. Michael Barone: I’ve been — Ben Wattenberg: Hold on, hold on one second. Let us grant that that’s what the media
megaphone does. But weren’t all the good government types,
including probably everybody around here, 20 and 30 years ago saying, “Gee, people
ought to know more about our elections and more about our politics.” Then you had C-SPAN 1, C-SPAN 2, CNN, Headline
News, PBS, and so on and so on — CNBC, and so on and so forth, let alone a plethora of
magazines. We know more about it, and some of what we
know more about it is evil. Michael Barone: Well, and it wasn’t always
— Ronald Walters: That’s true. Michael Barone: It wasn’t always so great,
either. I mean, Steve mentioned earlier Adlai Stevenson,
Dwight D. Eisenhower as the candidates for president in 1952. One of the major actors on the American scene
in 1952 was a guy named Joe McCarthy, who was out there making false and slimy charges
against people like Gen. Marshall as having been influenced by the communist conspiracy
and so forth. It was not a total time of political uplift. And McCarthy used, as Ron said, the media
of those days in his way to amplify these often baseless charges for a while until he
finally did himself in by going too far. Stephen Hess: Yeah, but I come down on Ron’s
side. When you’re talking about the national political
press corps today, you find it’s far more cynical, far more sharp-edged than anytime
in our lifetime. Now, obviously, if you want to go back, you
can go back to the beginning of our country when our press was a partisan press; they
were paid for by the politicians. And of course, they were — Michael Barone: Now they’re partisan and
unpaid for. [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: They’re paid for by ratings
points — Ronald Walters: That’s right. Ben Wattenberg: — on television. Stephen Hess: And a lot of other things. They become speechmakers, if they’re shrill
enough. Ben Wattenberg: I’m shocked. Michael Barone: We do have some of these things
— Stephen Hess: If they’re shrill enough on
the Saturday and Sunday shows, they can do very well. Michael Barone: Well, we also — we in the
press also talk about there’s — say there’s dirt and argument here, there’s dirt and
clash and isn’t it terrible? It’s perfectly natural for Republicans and
Democrats or for people with different points of view to disagree, and I think we tend to
overreport the — we say any disagreement is dirty. It’s not dirty to disagree with somebody
else. It’s perfectly legitimate. Ben Wattenberg: Stephen Hess — Stephen Hess
— hold on. Stephen Hess: Most reporters today — let
me just — most reporters today start with the premise that the politician does not wish
to deliver his promise, and that’s a very serious charge. Ronald Walters: There has been a transition
in the career of journalism from people who were expected to only report and then a few
stars who had opinions, to now a whole lot of people who are in fact opinion leaders
as journalists. And we don’t have a spotlight on that phenomenon,
but I think that we ought to hold journalists also accountable to that standard. Ben Wattenberg: William Safire, this last
week in a column, called Mrs. Clinton “a congenital liar,” and that became page-one
news, one columnist’s opinion. That’s kind of — it is a lot of power. Ronald Walters: It is a lot of power. Michael Barone: Well, he backed it up with
some facts. I mean, if somebody had just come out and
made a charge based on no evidence, it wouldn’t, of course, be news. Ronald Walters: But can you think of a journalist
who used this kind of language regularly in the American media over the last 30 or 40
years? I can’t think of — Michael Barone: Well, I think there’s a
place for invective. I think if you go back to read what a lot
of Republican journalists said about Franklin D. Roosevelt, a lot of vitriol. The Chicago Tribune talking about the president
having — suggesting that the president conspired and knew about the Pearl Harbor invasion and
allowed it go forward and things. Ben Wattenberg: All right, let’s just — Michael Barone: That was tough stuff. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, you touched on the greater
world. When fledgling democracies like Russia or
Nicaragua or the Philippines have elections, the people they want as election observers
are from the United States, and they — the world seems to think that we are the fathers
of democracy. Are we doing it better here than it is being
done elsewhere, elections? Stephen Hess: I think part of that is we were
not a colonial power. The African nations with a free election aren’t
going to want to invite the British in, let’s say. So I think there’s a little difference in
who you invite in from where you’re coming. Ben Wattenberg: But, you know, it’s interesting,
the Filipinos, where we were a colonial power, wanted us in. Michael Barone: Well, and Latin Americans,
where many people thought that we were a neocolonial power, often do. I think a lot of credit goes in this country,
the National Democratic Institute, the Republican Institute, many people on both the political
left and the political right in this country have played a very constructive role in places
as far afield as Chile, Russia, East — South Korea and things, and they have done a heck
of a good job and deserve more credit than they’re given. Ben Wattenberg: In your former incarnation
as a pollster, many of those companies have gone around the world preaching our peculiar
kind of democracy, selling it. Michael Barone: Well, in some cases, they’ve
been selling their services and been consultants. In some cases, they have just gone over as
unpaid advisers to one side or another and — Ben Wattenberg: But I want to go to — Ronald Walters: They may actually also have
started the polling industry. But let me say something about South Africa
because I had a very rare experience, having been part of Clinton’s delegation to monitor
the elections. And there I think it was the magic of the
stability of the American political process. And I think in many places, that is really
what attracts people to have us in there. But the interesting thing to me is that the
South Africans crafted what they call a government of national unity, where everybody was at
the table once they got through. And Reverend Jackson and I were talking about
that on the way back to this country, and we said, wait a minute, our system is one
where you’ve got 49 percent of the people can theoretically be out. It’s a winner-take-all system, where if
you get 51 percent of the vote, that’s it. So now, which one is better? Ben Wattenberg: I think that’s the point
I wanted to come to, that’s right. Ronald Walters: Okay. Ben Wattenberg: Is our system of popular democracy
the best one around? Ronald Walters: I think it’s too representative. And I think if you go back and look at the
language that people were using to describe this system when it was put together, democracy
— you won’t see that very many times. As a matter of fact, there is a school of
historians who think that the people who framed our Constitution were afraid of democracy,
and therefore they put together a republican form of government really to give the management
of the political system to an elite. I think that it could stand far more inclusion
and openness and participation. Ben Wattenberg: And so that pushes you toward
the idea of non-winner-take-all, toward a more proportional system, the way you have
in the European democracies. Ronald Walters: I think so, yes. Michael Barone: I think that our — I guess
I would take the opposite view. It seems to me that our system is pretty — the
constitutional framework in the first place and the two parties that have developed and
are now two of the three oldest political parties in the world — Ben Wattenberg: What’s the third one? Michael Barone: The third one is the Conservative
Party in Britain if you date its beginning from the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Anyway — Ben Wattenberg: That’s when I normally date
it from. Yeah, go ahead. [Laughter.] Michael Barone: But, you know, the fact is,
we are a large and complex country, and we’ve got a system where nobody — it’s very
hard for any one faction, as Madison called them in The Federalist Papers, to get total
control. You have to accommodate people. Yes, one party can control the presidency
and both branches of Congress, like the Democratic Party did in 1992, but as we saw in ’93
and ’94, that’s not automatically going to get all the Democratic programs enacted. And the voters were capable of throwing them
out and putting in the Republicans, as they may be capable of throwing out the Republicans
and putting in the Democrats in ’96. Stephen Hess: I’m on Michael’s side. I want as much glue holding this together
as possible. I would be fearful of a system that became
a multiparty system, a lot of separate caucuses in the Congress trying but probably not succeeding
to make coalitions. I think the Founding Fathers have made an
incredibly difficult and complex system to get anything done, as we’re now obviously
realizing, as it is. I think the proportional representation system
makes it even more complicated, and I would rather have the great tent theory and have
— find room for everybody under one of these other tents. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just go to one more
cosmic topic and give kind of a quick answer. Let us stipulate, for the sake of discussion,
that the United States is today the greatest, most influential country in the world. Question: Is that because of or in spite of
our election system? Ronald Walters: No. Ben Wattenberg: No? [Laughter.] Michael Barone: I would vote because of, but
I would add a little something to that. And I think that is, it is because of our
electoral system and our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence, as supplemented
by the ways in which our definition of rights and who belongs in the system and who can
run the system has become elastic and included the people who were not originally included. Ben Wattenberg: So with all its flaws, it
is contributing to our greatness. Michael Barone: Winston Churchill once said,
“Democracy is the most horrible system that anybody has ever invented — except for all
the rest.” Stephen Hess: Yeah, I think we would have
come out about the same if we had worked out a — if our Founding Fathers had other ideas
about how to organize us. It’s the nature of the richness of the country. It’s the nature of the diversity of the
people. We would have survived, I think probably quite
well, maybe as well, under other systems as well. But now we have this one. We’re used to it. You have to watch how you want to change it. First of all, you don’t have the option
of changing it in many ways, so you work around the margins. Ben Wattenberg: On the scale of 1–10, terrible,
terrific? Where would you be, Ron Walters? Ronald Walters: Well, of course, I think now
having seen what the South Africans have tried to do and what exists in some European countries,
I’d give it about a four. Stephen Hess: Oh, I’d have it right there
down the middle. I can — I can’t imagine other people — another
system that I would prefer to be in right now. Ben Wattenberg: You cannot imagine? Stephen Hess: No, I absolutely cannot. Ben Wattenberg: So you would give it — Stephen Hess: So on that scale, I’d have
to give it a 10. If you talk about a scale of how much I would
like it to be better than it is, then it comes down the middle. Michael Barone: If I had to come at it in
the long run of human history, I’d give us a nine out of 10. I can think of a whole bunch of things that
we ought to do to get to 10 and I’d like to see us do, but that’s where I’d go. Ben Wattenberg: The answer is 7.83. [Laughter.] Let’s just do one question to end this. If you could do one thing to reform our election
system, what would it be? Michael Barone. Michael Barone: Keep Ross Perot out. [Laughter.] No, I — not person. I’d try and get our campaign finance system
working somewhat better. Maybe I’d tell each party that they’d
have to come up with a plan that they would come up with if they knew they were about
to be swept from office and — which the Democrats should have done last time and didn’t. Ben Wattenberg: Stephen Hess. Stephen Hess: I think probably the easiest
thing we could do — a doable thing — would be to put the elections back under the framework
and the roof of the political parties. Our law now gives that pot of money for public
financing to the candidates. I would like to try to rebuild the parties
that have a continuing role, that aren’t finished when the election is over. Ben Wattenberg: I cannot disagree with you
more. Professor Walters, Ron Walters. Ronald Walters: Yes. I was going to say that I think sometimes
we find the efficacy of the electoral process really in society, and I think that’s where
we ought to look for some of our reforms. For example, I think that the — right now,
the press has too much of a monopoly over the process of political legitimacy. And I would, for example, give candidates
far more access to the forum, the public forum of debate and educating the American people
without the necessity of having to pay for everything. I think we can do that in this country. Ben Wattenberg: Free television time? Ronald Walters: Exactly. They do it in many other countries. Brazil, for example, candidates have an allotted
block of time which they can address the public. We can do that here. Michael Barone: And in fact, the networks
have done less of that in this cycle than they’ve done in ’92 and ’88. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Ronald Walters, Michael Barone,
and Stephen Hess. And thank you. Now get your pencils and paper handy. Announcing the “Think Tank” contest for
the best political bumper sticker. Part one, submit your entry for or against
the likely Democratic nominee, President William J. Clinton. Entries must be received by February 1. The winning bumper stickers will be announced
on “Think Tank” and awarded a prize. Later, in part two, we will run a similar
contest for the likely Republican presidential nominee. So please send your bumper stickers and any
other comments and questions to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC,
20036. We can also be reached and entries may be
submitted by email to [email protected] or through the World Wide Web at www.thinktank.com. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.


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