“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
America’s foundations were built to preclude suicide. Checks and balances and social justice promises in our Constitution are as crucial to the body politic as our heart and brain. But, there is no assurance against destructive conduct—only a healthy body politic is capable of continual renewal.
Americans and thus America has approached the edge. Recall the self-destructive conduct that led to the Civil War. States divided and then seceded from the Union. Irrational thought—the justification of slavery— became more important than family ties. I grew up in Southern Missouri, just 20 miles south of my birthplace was the Confederate Capitol of Missouri. I know the stories of hate, division and the destruction that followed.
American strength has been built around unity. Study our literature, poetry and lyrics. Study the 272 words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the 701 words in his 2nd Inaugural Address. It only takes several minutes to read both. Every single day in our ordinary affairs we are implored to improve ourselves—better health, enjoyment, weight and the like. And we know that the best organizations have continual improvement in their DNA.
So let me apply this truth to politics and government. But first, I would ask you to move on to another column if you are satisfied that our public affairs are in good order.
If you are still with me, you are probably familiar with the polls. Weekly we are told that a vast majority of us believe Washington is broken. We need to keep in mind that in a democracy, the work in our National Capitol is a measure of our stewardship. Congress and the White House are occupied by people we elect.
One of my several back stories was as a politician—a Republican in what was then a Democratic State. I was campaign manager, in 1972, for former Governor of Missouri Kit Bond. Kit, in winning, received tens of thousands of votes from the other side; otherwise he would have lost.
Today by the time the political campaigns are over, the Primary and General Election battlefields are often deeply rutted with more than just traces of blood. In Congressional elections, gerrymandering often assures that small-minded meanness is not punished. Gerrymandering eliminates the need to reach beyond tribal affiliations—it is an attack on democracy and civility.
We all know about campaign buttons, bumper strips and TV ads. What we should concentrate on is money and computers.
As government has gotten bigger and bigger and more and more regulatory, few if any business organizations are neutral about its conduct. As well there are public employee unions. Embedded interests insure that the growth of campaign budgets outpace almost any economic barometer we choose to follow.
A huge hunk of this money is spent on the derivatives of computer technology. The computer enabled micro-targeting of voters recalls the old phrase, “garbage in, garbage out”. Although in this case the garbage is conjured by clever assassins who specialize in political destruction.
The formula is simple. Find out the least admirable things your opponent has done and then bomb credulous voters with hyper-emotional messages. Result: bloody and deeply rutted fields of combat with hardened and cynical survivors whose self-worth and future rely on rhetorical pillage. If you are entertained by these politicians, you can observe them any night on the cable news channels that specialize in polarization. We are now in a 21st Century version of a Civil War.
There is no way to simply turn back the clock to a more civil time. A deeply involved government paired with free speech guarantees has transformed democracy into a capital intensive affair. There is only one option: adapt, change the way we elect.
Beginning in 2020 a State that normally elects Republicans but is enlivened by a strong independent spirit, Alaska, began Ranked Choice Voting, joining Maine. The process is as simple as choosing where to eat out. If reservations are needed we might say “if we can get in lets go to the Nirvana restaurant, but if not see if you can get a reservation at Penultimate”.
In short, if after the initial ballot count no candidate has a majority of all votes cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his/her supporters second choice votes are allocated to the other candidates. That is right, we will vote for successive choices as well. This reallocation process continues until the candidate most preferred by eliminated candidate’s voters wins a majority. Attendant questions include how open the Primaries are and whether Ranked Choice Voting is used in both the Primary and General elections.
Let me concede two things. First incumbents, Party big shots and those making a living from politics, will not like it. Second, the people who administer elections will claim it will be more burdensome. Although, just as computers can be used to destroy civility, they can be used to quickly parse election data and reallocate votes.Having asked for your indulgence for more words than usual, let me wrap this up. If, as a candidate I might need second choice votes, I am going to be less likely to enflame the other candidate’s supporters. And, if as a voter I need to make additional choices, I’m going to have to go beyond my presumptive choice—looking for things I like about the other candidates.
Finally, the election of leaders will always fall short of ideal. We are humans. But today we are on a destructive path with an urgent need to strengthen democracy.
Briefly on the War
Russia, unprovoked, is now learning it cannot win but can only destroy. “Fanaticism” according to George Santayana “consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim”
Is the civilized world incapable of organizing to stop wanton destruction? NATO needs to make demands of its own.
At the least protective corridors should be established; not as war zones but as the absence of war zones so that civilians can leave. Change the context, protect innocents!
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.