Small World: Time for another American revolution?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Had enough of the party primaries and caucuses? Think the country ought to do a better job of selecting a president? Get back in line, please. There are thousands, yeah millions of Americans who think the same way.

Which is an oblique way of saying I have a few ideas to improve the process. The process for picking a winner as it now exists is one of the problems. The other, linked and overriding, is the quality of men and women who are offered up to voters. I think we have a pretty good man in the White House now, but that hasn’t always been the case in modern times. (We’ll pause while Reagan and G.W. Bush fans leave the room.)

With something like 200 million souls to choose from, why can’t we come up every four years with a pair of opponents who we can be satisfied will meet the standards that the authors of our democracy had in mind? A two-part answer to the search for the problem’s roots: money and privacy.

To explicate on the second part first, I don’t think there is much that can be done to protect the occasional brilliant but painfully shy possible candidates. We don’t want to impede in any way the investigative work of our press.  Many of those who publish are biased, of course, but that is just a burden we’ll have to live with and trust to the intelligence of voters to discern. Only aspirants with the ambition to withstand heartless scrutiny will stand up to the process. It’s a cost of public service.

But, money is a different problem and the lack thereof certainly keeps some compelling figures out of politics. Having constantly to raise the green stuff is a curse of holding office. Not only does it consume vital energies, it threatens to distort policy in favor of the wealthy donors. A plain perversion of democracy. (Do I sound like Bernie Sanders?)

One approach for dealing with the baleful burden of seeking cash is to establish firm and reasonable limits on contributions — perhaps through constitutional amendment if that is what it takes to satisfy the Supreme Court. Another corrective move would be to afford each recognized candidate a measure of free TV time and to ban TV ads or at least limit them to a prescribed maximum level. The TV magnates owe the public this sacrifice in exchange for their broadcasting privileges.

But, how should we decide whose names are to appear on the ballots? Here, we might learn something from the scorned Iranians. They allow citizens to put their names forward which are then subject to scrutiny by a committee of clerics. The standards are tight: For a seat in the parliament a master’s degree, Moslem faith (unless seeking one of the seats reserved for Jews or Christians), loyalty to the Islamic Republic and a few other provisions — some of which can, of course, be used to disqualify political enemies. (No politics are perfectly pure, especially not theirs.)

An American committee might be set up without the religious standards, but with criteria, which would separate the sheep from the goats. Several of the candidates on the Republican list would never have made it past a simple objective or subjective review. You know who they are. Our committee would look at past performance and future promise, not ideological standards. University professors, business leaders, governors and members of Congress, and nonprofit heads would be the sorts of people evaluated and, if deemed worthy, allowed to run. Those so designated would be allowed to enter into a national primary. The top two vote getters would be the candidates in November, perhaps a pair of personalities from the same party.

And, oh, yes, along the way we should abolish the Electoral College in favor of decision by popular vote.

The bottom line of this daydreaming is that we shouldn’t be idly dreaming. The country needs real, fundamental change in the way it conducts politics. That is the message angry voters are fumblingly trying to send to our masters.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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