Marty Nemko, holds a Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of innovation from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. This is the second in a series on thinking outside of the box when it comes to the nation’s leading challenges.
It’s election season. Americans are, yet again, charged with choosing the best candidates to run the country. And we don’t like the choices. According to the latest Gallup Poll, 24-34 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of the top five Republican presidential candidates, and the incumbent president is liked even less. Among those polled from both parties, 46 percent would vote for a generic GOP candidate over President Obama.
Meanwhile the candidates employ ever-more powerful weapons of mass manipulation.
In the not-so-distant past, political candidates, had but a small public relations operation armed with little more than common sense. The team’s advice was as simple as, “Sound like a moderate. Smile more. Look straight into the camera. Speak in sound bites — you can never go wrong underestimating the public’s intelligence.” Weapons of influence were no more sophisticated than “I Like Ike” buttons and red, white and blue balloons at whistle stops.
Today, the more influential the office, the more likely the candidates are to employ a squadron of highly sophisticated influence experts from Madison Avenue and academia. In April 2009, Time magazine reported on what may be the most sophisticated to date: the Obama campaign’s use of “a behavioral dream team” (including a Nobel Laureate).
“These guys really know what makes people tick,” then-Obama campaign field director Mike Moffo told Time. Democrats aren’t alone. Indeed, the GOP, under the tutelage of Frank Luntz, may have made the first quantum leap in mass manipulation through the use of dial-equipped focus groups.
Indeed, much of what major candidates say today is tested using dial focus groups. Groups of likely voters sit with a dial as the candidate tries out policy proposals, campaign rhetoric and talking points. They turn the dial from 1 to 10 from moment to moment. Then, with each sentence, the candidate tries to have the highest mean word-score possible. Luntz showcased the technique recently on an episode of late-night comedy show, “The Colbert Report.”
Candidates’ commercials, press conferences, and speeches are not the only aspects of the campaign governed by this method. “Informal” town-hall meetings, press-the-flesh pancake breakfasts, and conversations with potential donors are also subject to testing. And technology makes it cheap for today’s politicians to inveigle themselves ever deeper into voters’ minds. Today’s successful campaign requires at least one General of the Online Front – a staff member who targets voters with email, Facebook updates, and Twitter posts.
In the face of that, how can we hope that America’s electorate — regardless of their education level — will pick the candidates most likely to govern the nation wisely? How are we even to know what a candidate will actually be like in office? We don’t. Too often, we don’t end up voting for the best candidate but for the best messaging machine — the candidate who can most stay “on message.” In other words, we too often vote for the most data-mine-controlled marionette.
We try not to think about it too much because it would make us even more skeptical of our leadership. But consider how many times candidates use phrases that no thinking person would oppose — phrases such as, “We want to move forward, not backward,” and “I stand for family values.” The candidate’s proposal is a “bold new idea” while the opponent’s is a “risky scheme.” We accept, with a shrug, politicians evading media questions — whether they’re running for office or selling their books. Even some in the media grudgingly accept it.
Selecting our legislators by voting is a hallowed tradition, but must all traditions remain forever? In light of candidates’ ever more sophisticated manipulation machines, might the greater good be served by selecting rather than electing our legislators? I believe it’s wise to continue electing our presidents, governors, and mayors. However, I propose that our city councils and state and federal legislators not be elected, but selected, using passive criteria.
The Senate might consist, for example, of the most newly retired of the 10 largest nonprofits, a randomly selected chief technology officer of the S&P Midcap 400, the National Association of Police Organizations’ Top Cop, the National Teacher of the Year, the most award-winning scientist under age 30, the philosophy professor who has won the most awards for teaching excellence, the federal employee most rapidly promoted to director level, the student body president of a randomly selected college, a randomly selected MacArthur ‘genius’ grant winner, and the artist with the most work in top museums. In addition, perhaps 20 percent of them should be randomly selected individuals. Leadership consisting only of society’s elite would be unlikely to consider the full range of worthy perspectives. The legislators would be subject to term limits, serving only one six-year term. That would give them long enough to learn how to be an effective legislator but short enough to reduce the risk of corruption.
The benefits of this system include:
— We’d have a more worthy and ideationally diverse group of leaders.
— Because there would be no campaigns, our leaders would not be beholden to big donors.
— The public would view such a leadership with more respect than they currently have for our elected candidates.
— The absence of campaigns would save the public a fortune. Just our income tax form’s $3-per-person check-off box to political campaigns is projected to, over the next 10 years, cost the taxpayer $617 million.
Of course, you might argue that the incumbent politicians would never allow for this. After all, when it comes to changing the election process, the foxes are guarding the hen house. But I believe the media, equally eager to see better leaders selected, would urge the electorate to support candidates who would vote for a fairer selection system. And politicians, concerned about their place in history, will feel pressure to support the change. History would view politicians that voted themselves out of a job for the good of the nation as heroes, while no-voting politicians would be seen as self-serving obstructionists.
Another objection is that a “Don’t Elect. Select.”-program would require a Constitutional amendment, which is no easy task. But the Constitution has already been amended 27 times. I can’t think of a more worthy reason for number 28.