Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Politics Reform

A friend of mine posted an interesting out-of-the-box idea for election reform. Well, he said election reform, I tend to think it would be more like reforming the entire political system. But reform, certainly. That sparked the following random late-night thought on my part...

First, a problem statement. I don't think any of this is controversial, but feel free to argue anyway...

Problems:

  1. Politics is too heavily influenced by political parties.
  2. Politics is too heavily influenced by "improper" forces like special interest groups, PACs, etc
  3. People in general place too much weight on the physical characteristics of leaders and not enough on the mental/leadership characteristics.
  4. The election campaign trail is incredibly distracting and not a particularly good way to judge leaders.
  5. Mudslinging and personal smear campaigns are incredibly effective at winning elections, but ultimately bad ways to choose leaders.
Goofy solution: Anonymize the candidates.

Each candidate would be assigned a genderless, cultureless pseudonym, preferably something non-biasing like "Candidate A", or "Gamma". Nobody would know the candidates' real names, aside from select members of the election commission. Any candidate who was unmasked would be immediately disqualified from the race, which would incent them to avoid making identifying comments. No candidate would be allowed to state a political party, nor to be supported by any political party or donation. If necessary, the pseudonyms could be reassigned, for instance after the "primaries."

All interaction with the candidates would be mediated through an anonymous interface - preferably plain text, but maybe on camera with the "mystery witness" style of silhouette plus voice scrambling anonymity. Questions could be put to them in the form of essay topics, debates, town hall meetings, whatever, just so long as they remain anonymous. All such interactions would have to involve all candidates and be initiated by a non-candidate -- nobody could call a press conference or create a media event. Photo ops would, of course, be strictly verboten.

Advertising by the candidates would not be allowed, although any third party could advertise on their behalf. Of course, nobody knows who the candidates are, but you could still pass out "Vote Candidate A!" buttons if you really wanted to.

Races would be similar to today, with multiple stages of "primaries" eventually winnowing the field down to a single candidate. The primaries would be very low intensity similar an essay homework assignment. Each stage would be progressively harder. Candidates would have to fund their own "campaigns" initially, which would mostly consist of finding the time to write enough essays to get through the "primaries." At each stage the remaining candidates would receive more and more support from the government, eventually having all their living expenses covered so that they could focus on the campaign. The cost of this would be negligible compared to current federally-subsidized campaign funding.

So, how would this address the problems stated above?

  1. Politics is too heavily influenced by political parties.
    Parties current role of advancing candidates would be obsolete. It's unclear that they would continue to exist at all, but even if they did it would have to be on the basis of supporting candidates who they think agree with their platforms. Ultimately this just devolves into a group of people who think the same way.
  2. Politics is too heavily influenced by "improper" forces like special interest groups, PACs, etc
    Nobody would be allowed to donate directly to a candidate, eliminating that entire class of quasi-bribery. Likewise, no pre-election deals could be cut, because you wouldn't know who to talk to. It would similarly be difficult to influence politicians via promises for their reelection campaign, since they would be similarly anonymous and the donors would not know who to advertise for.
  3. People in general place too much weight on the physical characteristics of leaders and not enough on the mental/leadership characteristics.
    You don't hear them, you don't see them, so you've got nothing to judge on but what they say and write. It's hard to think that the plain text in the paper is "too black", or that the shadow on the screen is "gay" or "hot".
  4. The election campaign trail is incredibly distracting and not a particularly good way to judge leaders.
    Some time commitment would still be required. However the lack of candidate-driven media interaction could greatly reduce this by eliminating most speeches. Likewise candidates would not have to negotiate with party members, hire campaign staff, appear in various cities, etc etc.
  5. Mudslinging and personal smear campaigns are incredibly effective at winning elections, but ultimately bad ways to choose leaders.
    It's hard to sling mud when you don't know the target or his/her/it's history.
Wow, that came out longer than I expected. I can't believe you actually read that. So, what do you think?

6 comments:

Gordon Weakliem said...

Bad idea, I think. Identity has its disadvantages, but anonymity makes it too easy to game the system. Now you're relying on the candidates' statements, so the candidate's free to say whatever they think voters want to hear, whereas candidates who've established a reputation now need to explain their previous position.
I do think the 2-party system is extremely pernicious, though. I'm not sure I want the 30 party model either, but there has to be a more happy medium. However, I think this is a function of operating as a republic. Multiparty systems seem to function well only in parliamentary systems where a small party can use the coalition building system to excercise power.

nicki0731 said...

Gee, you do some pretty heavy late night thinking. How could anonymity possibly work in our society? Not to mention deciding to enter the race would be kind of like entering the witness protection program. Keeping secrets has never been our strong suit. I also have issues with electing people when we have no history on them. Instead of their looks or political/
ethical/ military/ voting background we would be electing leaders based on whoever funded the best essay writers. (okay so that element already exists in our system, but now we wouldn't be able to make fun of the candidates as easily). This political system sounds very socialist - in that it looks good on paper, but cannot succeed in our corrupted world.
Instead of this crazy thinking, your time might be better spent teaching Wendy how to master those mashed potatoes. Isn't it universally accepted that all women have no greater hope in this world than cook as good as their man's mother?

BeaKeR said...

That's the problem with late night brainstorms -- they don't usually make sense in the morning. Nonetheless, I like a good debate, so here goes...

@Gordon: Are you trying to imply that politicians don't already say whatever they think voters want to hear? I don't see that there's any way anonymity could increase that -- I think they've already hit the limits on pandering.
Also, there's no reason that you couldn't reveal identities after the election was over. So you'd still have a complete record of what was said, if you really think that matters.

I wouldn't envision this as a 2-party or 30-party system, but rather a party-less system.

@Nicki:
I would imagine the early stages of the race to be pretty benign. It's just when you get down to smallish (10? 20?) numbers of candidates that it would become really intrusive. Still, is running for office any worse than that now?

The lack of prior history is troubling. Perhaps it would be possible to write up sanitized versions of each candidates history, although that would be tough if they have things like "Governor of California" on it.

There are definitely some practical problems here, but then there are some practical problems in the existing system too...


The whole mashed-potato thing is kind of an inside joke. I don't believe Wendy is in any sort of competition with Mom, but she is absolutely fanatical about her potatoes in general, and mashed taters in particular. I just couldn't resist the jab :)

nicki0731 said...

I think trying to keep the anonymity is not as intrusive as it is promoting lying. In this proposed system the consequences for exposure is being thrown out of the race. How does one explain the time consumption needed to be a candidate without exposing his/her/it's identity? Should we really be encouraging lies as an improvement to the political process?
As for the mashed taters, I couldn't resist the jab either. Sorry to jump on the inside joke, mashed potatoes are serious business in my kitchen too. I dare any guy to challenge my taters. :)

Tim said...

The biggest problem I see is that anonymity is impossible in our society. Car and Driver always gets pictures of cars that are still under wraps, right? And movie stars can't blink an eye without a camera there to catch that moment. The amount of pressure that news organizations would place on trying to figure out candidates identities will virtually guarantee that every candidate would end up getting disqualified!

I suppose I'm supposed to say something about mashed taters now, but I'm afraid I'm not quite up to speed on this one. :)

nicki0731 said...

Home sick for 2 days last week, so I had plenty of bedtime thinking. I thought more about the downside of not getting the identity of the candidates, and it seemed along the same lines as internet marriages. The reason online dating works is that it is dating, without commitment. Electing officials based soley on what is "posted" for public viewing under the regulations is scary business. (Not to mention Tim's statement about anonymity's impossibilities.) Anyway, it is way easier to criticize ideas than it is to come up with new ones, so I commend you for wanting change in the first place.