To his ever growing list of distinctions, Barack Obama now can lay claim to being the first U.S. president to have been reelected with fewer electoral votes, a lower percentage of the popular vote, and a lower number of total votes than he garnered when first elected. This is hardly a fortuitous achievement. It is the result of a campaign strategy that relied not on getting the vote out but on restraining it, at least for a key demographic. Aware that there was little hope of attracting lower to middle class white voters whose tribulations were exacerbated during Obama’s first term, the Obama campaign decided early to launch an extensive and costly ad campaign that unremittingly drew attention to Mitt Romney’s wealth and characterized him as being unscrupulous and uncaring.
Negative campaigning was not an innovation of the Obama campaign, but what was curious about this approach was that, in effect, no positive message was proffered. At bottom, what was being argued was not that Obama had had a rough first term but should be given a second shot because a Romney presidency would be even more deleterious. Rather, the argument was that while Obama had done nothing, and evidently could do nothing, to mitigate your misfortunes, Romney did not even care about those misfortunes. The choice was between an inept candidate and an insensitive one. In the end, there was little sense in voting for either.
It proved to be a winning strategy. As Sean Trende and Jay Cost both documented, there was a substantial decline in white voter turnout in the 2012 election. The message conveyed relentlessly by the Obama campaign evidently was received. For those who orchestrated that campaign and those who supported its objective, there is reason to celebrate.
But when a president’s victory depends on a campaign message that for millions of voters effectively amounts to saying, “Don’t vote!” there is, or ought to be, reason for alarm.This scenario should be alarming wherever government derives its authority from the will of the people, but especially so in the context of American democracy, which at heart is, or at least was, deliberative.
At the time of the American founding, Alexander Hamilton famously wrote that
[I]t has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
That observation was spelled out in the first paper of The Federalist, a series of essays that were penned and published with the express purpose of persuading the people of New York to approve the proposed Constitution. The seriousness with which the authors of The Federalist treated that important question is made plain by the attention and deference they accorded the views of their opponents on the one hand and the judgment of their readers on the other. “I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections [to the proposed Constitution] which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention.” Their readers would not be misled nor their opponents maligned. “My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.” It was for the people of New York to read those arguments, to weigh them and to decide for themselves. What they were being afforded, in short, was an opportunity for reflection and choice.
That opportunity was not exclusive to the people of New York. The document drafted by the Constitutional Convention was submitted not to the Continental Congress and the state legislatures as the Convention had been instructed to do, but to “a Convention of Delegates, chosen in each State by the People thereof.” The understanding was that the Constitution would enjoy legitimacy only if the people themselves supported, that is, chose it. And that choice would be legitimate only if it was reasoned, only if it was realized through genuine reflection.
The deliberative spirit was not universal. Rhode Island refused to call a ratifying convention and instead held a popular referendum on the matter. By a vote of 2,711 to 243, the Constitution was rejected. In Pennsylvania, unwilling legislators were dragged to the State House to provide the quorum needed to call the ratifying convention. But these instances were exceptions. In conventions across the states, delegates met to discuss the proposed Constitution, article by article, section by section. Debates were protracted and oftentimes acrimonious, but the virtues of the deliberative approach were undisputed. The Constitution’s proponents and opponents alike understood that human judgment was fallible, but corrigible, and that the surest way to determine the verity of an argument was through collective deliberation.
The sentiment expressed by John Jay at the New York convention was one that would have been shared by many of his compatriots:
We did not come here to carry points. If the gentlemen will convince me I am wrong, I will submit. I mean to give my ideas frankly upon the subject. If my reasoning is not good, let them show me the folly of it. It is from this reciprocal interchange of ideas that the truth must come out.
This deliberative spirit did not arise spontaneously out of the constitutional moment, but was woven into the fabric of American civil society, most notably in the township governments that so captivated Alexis de Tocqueville. It not only preceded the convention debates, but survived them as well, a phenomenon the young Frenchman readily descried.
What one understands by republic in the United State is the slow and tranquil action of society on itself. It is a regular state really founded on the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliating government, in which resolutions ripen for a long time, are discussed slowly, -and executed only when mature.
Tocqueville was no idealist. Even if this portrayal was embellished, its basis in reality was plain. No one who applied this picture to America today could contend the same.
In the present context, it would be unreasonable to count the 2012 election as a watershed moment. The deliberative spirit in American democracy has been ebbing for some time. Nor would it be judicious to ascribe to Obama more responsibility than he actually merits. His triumph was the effect of a system already in decline, not the cause of that decline. Moreover, one cannot overlook the other parties whose participation, or non-participation, made such a denouement possible, namely a sycophantic media and an uninformed citizenry.
But the recent election should serve as a dim reminder of what the state of democracy in America is today: when leaders are eager to obviate debate, the press is bent on skewing it, and the people are happier not to have it, there is little hope to be gleaned in the future of American democracy.