In ancient Rome, when the population was stressed they threw circuses. In 2012, we Americans throw elections (pun intended). We have just lived through an election cycle in which more then $6 billion was spent by the campaigns.
Most of this money went to professional consultants who routinely earn six-figure salaries, media outlets from their sale of advertising space or time, and printers who blanket the landscape with eyesore literature that is rarely read.
Looking at who voted, it is clear many were motivated by fear and/or disdain (or stronger negative emotions) rather than shared aspirations for our local, county, state or national communities. In Utah, the $6 billion would have funded four years of public education or paid for four I-215 road projects. Instead, we were inundated with siege messages casting aspersions on opposing candidates.
We need to make changes in how we run our elections. Six suggestions:
1. Limit the amount of money candidates for all offices can spend directly or indirectly. Because of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, this could require a constitutional amendment, or have local, county or state governments create their own limitations.
2. Limit primary election campaigns to four months and final elections to two months.
3. Require public television and radio to allow statewide and federal candidates free airtime for structured debates.
4. Create a 48-hour competition between candidates where a significant public policy problem is detailed, and the candidates and their supporters/staff make specific suggestions on how they would address it.
5. Have Lincoln and Douglas-style debates where candidates ask each other questions without a moderator only a timekeeper and a civility enforcer.
6. Prohibit polls three weeks prior to a primary or election.
I recognize that addressing problems with our election process is only a partial step in confronting the problem of governance. In the Nov. 4 Salt Lake Tribune/Parade Magazine, GOP strategist Mark McKinnon suggested some immediate steps.
Among the more creative: "No budget, no pay," whereby members of Congress would not receive a paycheck unless or until a budget was passed on time. No governance by continuing resolutions. An up or down vote on presidential appointments within 90 days or the nominee would stand confirmed.
Also, make the House and Senate synchronize schedules, with three weeks in Washington, D.C., followed by one week in their home district. Introduce a fixed time for a question-and-answer session with the president or a Cabinet officer. The time would rotate biweekly between the House and the Senate.
McKinnon also recommended expanding presidential power to reorganize or eliminate redundant parts of the federal government.
Citizens under 30 increasingly do not believe their vote counts or their voices matter. If this sense of disenfranchisement continues, the structure of our two-century-old political process could crumble into a far less free system of self governance. Tyranny always is lurking. Only by being vigilant and willing to think of representative ways to reform can we sustain our system of governance.
Now is the time to act. We each need to ask our federal and state elected representatives to adopt these and other ideas for change. We can't afford to continue with the mindless blather which is passing for political/civic dialogue.
Are we Nero with a 21st century digital fiddle?
Pat Shea is a private attorney and associate research professor of biology at the University of Utah. He ran as a Democrat for governor in 1992 and the U.S. Senate in 1994.