If you think democracy is something America needs only occasionally, you can complain about the endless presidential election. But if you want a strong democracy, then frequent and continuing U.S. campaigns are an excellent innovation.
Think about it. Just this week, the unrest in Baltimore raised questions about policing, urban government, race and social inequality. The Supreme Court is considering same-sex marriage. The Senate is discussing U.S. policy on Iran, while the Barack Obama administration is dealing with Iranian interference in the Strait of Hormuz.
In a six-week campaign, many such issues wouldn’t bubble up to the surface. In a four-year effort, however, candidates either have to address them as they come up or risk the wrath of the press (and perhaps their parties) if they duck them. This has been a general problem for Hillary Clinton, one she is trying to address Wednesday by giving a speech on crime.
When asked about the Baltimore riots, Rand Paul cited “the breakdown of the family structure” as a cause, and also said “this isn’t just a racial thing, it goes across racial boundaries.” Jeb Bush and other Republicans were asked if they would attend same-sex weddings (Bush and Marco Rubio would, and Scott Walker already had). Rubio is pushing an amendment to the Senate resolution on Iran.
If the campaign didn’t start until next fall, it’s possible that all those issues would fade from the headlines and the candidates would never say anything about them.
The strategies of a long campaign are different from what happens in the final weeks of a presidential race. A short campaign is focused narrowly on repeating a simple message to as many people as possible. But in the long quest for a U.S. presidential nomination, candidates reach out to small constituencies and try to increase their public presence. That means reporters get access to these politicians. Groups within parties use the news media to push candidates to take certain positions.
In Britain, which is in the middle of a short election season right now, and in typical parliamentary governments, party leaders are chosen long before the next campaign. By tradition, those leaders give official party responses to events. But in the U.S., no official national party leader exists outside of nomination politics. It would be almost impossible to choose these leaders efficiently. The parties are radically decentralized, existing in networks of thousands and thousands of people in every state. Reaching out to them takes time.
This time-consuming task is what forces candidates to respond not only to specific demands by party-aligned groups but also to the nation’s day-to-day concerns. Even though most people aren’t paying attention to presidential politics now, the commitments the candidates make on urban issues and marriage and Iran – and on next week’s issues and on next month’s and on and on – will guide the winners once they are in office.
In other words, talking about current events during the long campaign is a critical part of the U.S. process of representation. It’s a political way of handling public affairs. The alternative is mere administration, and typically bureaucratic. Many people prefer that; for them, “politicizing” things is usually a bad idea. But I’m with the Framers – I'll take politics every time.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.