Chapter Study Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Many people, including politicians, campaigners, and scholars, like to conceptualize campaigns as a type of war, but there are two problems with this: to do so ignores the constraints on political actors, and it also provides no real place for the citizens in the metaphor.
    2. Understanding the incentives and constraints campaigns are under helps to make sense of their actions, and shows that there is an intelligible logic to how campaigns work, but that does not mean they are perfect in their promotion of free choice, political equality, and deliberation.
  2. Campaigns and Democratic Values
    1. Political campaigns provide voters with information, but it is clear that the quality of the information varies widely in terms of usefulness, clarity, and comprehensiveness. There are several standards by which campaigns can be evaluated, each of which inherently reflects the objectives campaigns should meet within a representative democracy:
      1. In a representative democracy, elections allow citizens free choice, or the ability to choose who represent them in government, which means that voters should have a choice of at least two candidates, and that there is no voter coercion or manipulation.
      2. The principle of political equality, or “one person, one vote,” should be reflected in the way elections and campaigns are run, meaning that votes of citizens should have an equal impact on election outcomes, that all candidates should be able to disseminate similar amounts of information to the voters, and that all candidates should be treated equally under the any rules affecting campaigns and elections.
      3. Elections do not inherently promote deliberation, as, in the end, the election will take place and someone will win with or without discussion. This can be particularly harmful to candidates in the minority who wish to reach and persuade a majority of voters of their opinion. Citizens then, should be offered a diverse range of sources and high volume of information to hear about the campaign, and candidates should have opportunities to deliberate, offer reasons for their positions, and criticize the positions of their competition.
    2. As much as campaigns must reflect the inherent values of a representative democracy, freedom of speech is also a fundamental right in the United States, and any limitations or regulations on campaigns that might promote other values cannot also limit free speech and expression. As a result of this, the United States has one of the least regulated campaign systems in the world.
  3. The Reality of Political Campaigns
    1. It is important to discuss the nature of political campaigns—whether they should be modeled on the abstract values of democratic theory, or if they should simply work in the way citizens want them to. This is further complicated by the different types of citizens—some who prefer substantive and interactive campaigns, and others who would rather have campaigns that demand less of them and provide them with simple cues to the choices they need to make.
    2. Generally, most campaigns and elections in the United States promote free choice—both in that there is usually more than one candidate running, and in that voter coercion or intimidation has become very rare. However, in local races, competition is much lower and there is much less information about options in races. Uncontested elections and elections where there is little competition between two candidates detract from citizens’ ability to choose their representatives freely.
    3. Competitive elections produce the highest level of political equality because they attract donors from both parties so both major party candidates are well-funded. In the opposite case of non-competitive elections, candidates compete on less-equal terms, but whether that reflects a flaw in the system or just a legitimate advantage of a “better candidate” is debatable—the amount of money candidates are able to raise reflects, in part, the confidence that citizens have in them.
    4. Bias in rules and regulations surrounding elections can also reduce political equality. Third-party candidates are often disadvantaged by these rules; presidential candidates from the two major parties are automatically eligible for public funds, unlike candidates from minority parties. Election disputes also raise the question of political equality because the neutrality of election officials can be questioned.
    5. American campaigns offer opportunities for deliberations, but critics content that they could offer more. Because the majority of races in the United States are not competitive, citizens arguably receive less information than deliberation demands. Debates offer opportunities to convey this type of information, while outside of debates, it usually takes a competitive race to push candidates to specify their positions and provide large amounts of information to voters.
  4. Reforming Campaigns
    1. For the most part, campaigns protect the free choice and political equality of citizens, but they do not create equal opportunities for candidates, which can undermine the deliberative quality of elections.
    2. Any reforms that might help in furthering deliberation, however, may also undermine another value. Reforms also need public support to be passed, and many reforms that would strengthen deliberation, such as using deliberative polls, in which citizens are interviewed before and after sitting through two or three days of speakers and debates, have no public support.
    3. Other reforms have been proposed to enhance free choice and political equality, such as making all elections publicly financed, but they still require public support (in this case, direct financial support), as well as the willingness of incumbents in Congress to propose and pass such bills. This type of reform, along with such reforms as limiting campaign spending, also can infringe on the fundamental right to free speech as well.
  5. Conclusion
    1. The manner in which campaigns are run is logical given the context of the American political system, which is not to say that they are neither inherently bad nor somehow irrational. And because they play a vital role in democracy, they must also be measured against the standards of democratic theory.
    2. In some ways, elections fall short, and there are reforms that may improve them, but it is not clear whether citizens or politicians support these reforms or whether they could be enforced without limiting free speech, and so, being found unconstitutional.