The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Elections & Campaigning

In a recent election for Public Service Commissioner for the First District of the State of Louisiana, there was an occurrence that has lessons for us all about elections and campaigning. Mr. John F. Schwegmann, an outstanding citizen and well-known owner of a chain of regional supermarkets, as well as husband to a former highly-thought-of Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, was a 15-year incumbent who donated his commissioner's salary to charity. He was defeated for re-election by Mr. Jay Blossman, a 31-year old attorney who, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in a September 23, 1996, article, knew next to nothing about the office and had "never even sat through a Public Service Commission meeting."

Mr. Schwegmann did little campaigning, spending only about $30,000, mostly from his own money, for this position which paid $37,000 per year. Mr. Blossman spent about $240,000, mostly borrowed from a bank, and unleashed a TV ad-campaign which, according to Schwegmann, falsely accused the incumbent of "presiding over a decade of rate increases," when in fact Mr. Schwegmann had made heroic efforts to keep rates under control. Said Schwegmann to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "It is very distasteful to me that I would have to bombard the airwaves with hundreds of ads to win re-election. That is something I refused to do out of principle. It is disgusting."

It is generally agreed that Mr. Schwegmann never did what was politically expedient in his position as Commissioner, and there was no question of scandal whatsoever during his tenure. In other words, Mr. Schwegmann was, by general consensus, an outstanding public servant.

Mr. Blossman was attracted to the contest by the fact that the First District had been redistricted, and that Mr. Schwegmann had lost a good deal of his name recognition. He waited until the last moment for qualifying, presumably in order to be sure that no one else was entering the race. Immediately thereafter, he went on the attack, and "in his ads he portrayed Schwegmann as a commissioner who had presided over 10 straight years of rate increases." But when asked, Blossman acknowledged he had no idea exactly how much utility rates had gone up. Off-hand, one might think that Mr. Blossman had sought the job and taken on such a huge debt because the recognition would accrue to the benefit of his law practice. But Mr. Blossman told the Times-Picayune that he intends to give up his law practice and become a "full-time" commissioner!

Without speculating on what may be going on behind the scenes here, this situation brings to our attention several aspects of modern political campaigns that should be carefully analyzed and considered. As one newspaper reader wrote to the editor, "What is truly disheartening is that the public believed Mr. Blossman without taking the time to learn the facts." What is even more disheartening is that our whole elective system seems to be designed to favor a lesser-qualified, but well-financed candidate who will use unfair tactics, deception and manipulation in order to propel himself into a position of public trust. I'm sure that Mr. Schwegmann was greatly disappointed in losing this election; it is a depressing story. I myself, as a person concerned about American government, was thrown into a mild funk for a day or two over this apparent malfunctioning of our system.

We are compelled to ask, therefore, What has gone wrong? What does this election tell us about a system that is not working as it should? What can be done to fix it?

We, of course, are not interested in the particulars peculiar to this case. Mr. Blossman fully exploited the possibilities available to him. Whether he did anything actually illegal is not our concern here, and we would not want to suggest that he did. What concerns us is that this case suggests a debility in the system, a failure in our present-day processes that eliminates rather than selects the best candidate to serve the public interests.

This nation was founded on the idea of voters selecting candidates for public office who were committed to public service and not to their own enrichment. Jefferson was especially careful on this point, separating himself from any kind of gifts that might corrupt his intent to serve the public interests and not his own.

    "On coming into public office, I laid it down as a law of my conduct, while I should continue in it, to accept no present of any sensible pecuniary value. A pamphlet, a new book, or an article of new curiosity, have produced no hesitation, because below suspicion. But things of sensible value, however innocently offered in the first examples, may grow at length into abuse, for which I wish not to furnish a precedent... My desire, by a perseverance in the rule, [is] to retain that consciousness of a disinterested administration of the public trusts, which is essential to perfect tranquility of mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Hawkins, 1808.

Indeed, no honorable citizen should be forced to decide between candidates if all the election is about is which side will control the spoils, which will be able to dip into the flow of funds for their own and their friend's and contributor's enrichment, or which will be able to use power for their own advancement.

    "Were parties here divided merely by a greediness for office, take a part with either would be unworthy of a reasonable or moral man." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1795.

Were the election reduced to such a contest, the voter might well choose to abstain. This factor, incidentally, seems to have been overlooked as an explanation for diminished voter turn-out. Perhaps many voters feel it is dishonorable to take part in the kinds of elections that have evolved.

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In the election here under examination, Mr. Schwegmann seems to have been the kind of disinterested candidate our system needs to function properly. He had no greediness for office, no interest but to serve the public faithfully and well. Moreover, he had proved himself by having done precisely that for 15 years. Nevertheless, such a fine and honorable man was defeated by someone whose actions suggest the very opposite. According to the Times-Picayune, Mr. Blossman's response was, "We out-campaigned him, no question about it." The most important means by which Mr. Blossman "out-campaigned" Mr. Schwegmann was, of course, political advertisement, mainly on television. In today's political campaigns voters are bombarded with advertising, and much of it is false or misleading. The prevalence of advertising in political campaigns raises many interesting issues.

  • Elections are now as much a part of commerce as is the selling of manufactures. The mind-numbing manner in which products are promoted on TV has been adopted and adapted by political campaign managers and has become a well-calculated speciality. Whereas the adoption of modern advertising techniques in political campaigns may be a natural evolution in a free country, there seems to be no manifest necessity that it be this way. We don't educate our children in this manner (yet?), and it is not unreasonable to assume that the election process, either by custom or by law, could be conducted in a different arena from that which sells cars and soap. Election campaigns are, or ought to be, an educational experience, not an attempt to deceive the public. Since legal restrictions on the right of a candidate to advertise are generally assumed to violate the First Amendment, some other means must be found to shift the focus of campaigning from advertisement to a more intellectual process.
  • A campaign that is heavily dependent on advertising instead of on reason and informative debate favors those office-seekers who will do anything to get themselves elected. If reliance is on advertisement per se, then any lie, any deceit or half-truth becomes an advantageous means to win an election. Thus, the very people whom voters should repudiate are given the greatest advantage. The character traits that count in public service--honesty, forthrightness, sincerity--are put at a disadvantage, because all of those characteristics rely on reasoned communication, not on thought-suppressing spot ads.
  • Campaign advertising, already devoid of reasoned argument, will naturally gravitate to whatever tactics seem to help a candidate to win. This will include mud-slinging attack ads together with false and misleading assertions if they seem to do the job. These advertising campaigns rely not at all on reasoning, but rely instead on the creation of images, and this is usually a negative image of the opponent based on labels and name-calling that always serve as a substitute for thinking. As a result, the voters become confused and discouraged. They don't know who to believe. Real issues, important to any properly run self-government, are ignored or obscured. Whoever is selected through this unsavory process receives no clear mandate, since the issues upon which a mandate is formed are all but ignored. The voice of the people is effectively stilled, just as much as if it were suppressed by a despotic dictator taking away free speech and a free press. This kind of campaigning, in other words, effectively destroys everything this nation stands for.
  • Effective television advertising requires huge amounts of money, and this in turn forces candidates to spend inordinate amounts of time raising it. It leads political operatives to solicit funds from any and all possible sources, and this then leads to a further corruption of the political process as those sources for these huge sums expect some kind of quid pro quo. Thus the manner of campaigning and the need for raising huge sums of money to finance the campaigning work together to corrupt and undermine the system, rendering it a sham.
  • Advertisements, the mainstay of a political campaign, and especially those ads on TV, are at best not conducive to thoughtful analysis (see Movies, TV & Violence). In fact, they are conducive to the very opposite, as the Blossman campaign suggests. We may believe that voters are exercising rational thought under the influence of TV advertising, even when used equally by all sides; but the truth is that under the influence of TV spots, the voters are making choices, not rational decisions based on intelligent consideration. There is no rational standard to which all candidates are held, and if all are corrupt, it becomes the corrupt against the corrupt. In the choice between Schwegmann and Blossman, the voters were presented with, essentially, one side. That side, as it turns out, was misleading and deceptive. Yet, having only that one side, and having it presented in an overwhelming manner, the voters chose that side. Thus, Mr. Schwegmann was "out-campaigned," not by a reasoned consideration of the issues, not by a close examination of claims and counter-claims but by a preponderance of misleading advertising.
  • Allowing advertising to be the controlling factor in an election creates a passive electorate. Few of us use our brains if we can escape the necessity of doing so. Advertising of every kind puts us in the habit of not having to think, of having advertisers do our thinking for us by presenting the process of thinking pre-packaged, so that we only need to choose. It is a kind of brain-washing, but when it is used into politics, it can also be a way of mentally enslaving a people with their own consent. Once in the habit of "thinking" in this manner, voters can be manipulated at will. And, indeed, this is what unscrupulous campaign managers want: not a campaign waged on the issues, where voters make decisions based on a rational understanding of those issues, but a campaign controlled by advertising, where the choice is controlled by the media manipulators.
  • The nature of political advertising is such that if a candidate does not answer the false charges leveled against him, those charges will be believed and are sure to undermine his campaign. Because of this, the candidate has no choice: either participate at the level established by the opponent or lose. Moreover, the weight and manner of advertising on one side must be equal to that on the other. Even if the truth is well-argued, the amount of advertising devoted to the truth must equal the amount of the false charges, otherwise the truth will be drowned out. This is because voters are not thinking analytically, but are only choosing and reacting based on this pre-packaged thinking.
  • A person with outstanding qualifications who enters a race but does not campaign and does not advertise is not taken seriously by the voters, and they will ignore that candidate regardless or his or her qualifications. The assumption is, the candidate is not "serious." By doing little campaigning, Mr. Schwegmann implicitly signaled to the voters a comparative lack of interest. This was not the case, of course, but the disproportion between his advertising and that of his opponent made it seem so. We have acquired an image of a "political person," and anyone who does not fit that image, especially one who does not advertise and campaign vigorously, has virtually no chance of being elected.
  • Mr. Schwegmann found the whole process disgusting, and well he should, for that is precisely what it is. But this means we have reduced our electoral process down to a level such that an honorable person, a person of decent sensibilities, will find it repulsive and refuse to participate. This being so--and who can doubt that it is?--we must conclude that we now have a process that is by its very nature designed to discourage the most worthy persons from seeking public office! The system itself forces corrupt people and a corrupt government upon us, so that the miracle is that the results are no worse than they are, that some really exceptional people are able to slip through. The least capable candidates, the ones with the fewest scruples, tend to be the only ones presented for our choice. We wonder why we have so few good people running for public office, yet we have allowed a system to develop that assures that good people will stay away, that says to them, "sorry; only the corrupt may apply."

Therefore it appears that the whole election process has become corrupted. It is not because the voters want it that way; it happened because the system allows the politicians, not the people, to determine the kind of campaign that shall be waged. Moreover, holding public office now brings with it certain advantages that cause the office-seeker to pursue it by doing whatever it takes. The result is that corrupt ends are achieved by corrupt means. This is not inevitable, however.

    "In a virtuous government... public offices are what they should be: burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor and great private loss." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, 1779.

By this measure, we might conclude that our government is no longer virtuous. Public offices are no longer a burden, but a lucrative means for self-advancement. They are sought after by persons who want them desperately, not by those, like Jefferson, who accept them as a duty owed to their country. Under the circumstances, the voters respond predictably: a majority refuse to participate at all; a minority feel compelled to make the best of it that they can, and a portion of those like it just the way it is. Steps have been taken to increase voter participation in the selection process for the President in hopes of encouraging the rise of good candidates selected by the people instead of by political bosses. But there has been no noticeable improvement in the candidates for that office. One reason is that few come to be candidates for the office of President without moving up through the political ranks, and, as this mostly unnoticed election for Public Service Commissioner in Louisiana well illustrates, the whole process seems designed to prevent good people from even entering the political ranks, much less does it provide opportunity for their moving up through those ranks.

    What Shall We Do?

Those interested in good government naturally ask, What can be done? Certainly, Thomas Jefferson would counsel that we adhere to principle.

    "It behooves our citizens to be on their guard, to be firm in their principles, and full of confidence in themselves. We are able to preserve our self-government if we will but think so." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 1800.

And how shall we do that?

    "We, I hope, shall adhere to our republican government and keep it to its original principles by narrowly watching it." --Thomas Jefferson to ------, 1793.

We the people must return government to its founding principles by narrowly watching it. The problem goes much deeper than mere campaign finance reform. Finance reform seeks to put restrictions on who can contribute and how much money they can give. But this does not even address the problem of the way the money is spent or the kind of campaign that is waged. That is the root cause of the problem. As long as vast sums are needed to wage advertising campaigns that hoodwink the American people in order to elect a candidate, the need for those vast sums will continue to exist, and enterprising campaign managers will find ways of getting around whatever finance reforms are enacted. The next essay on this subject will look at the prospects for, and the means whereby, elections and campaigning can be made to serve the purposes of American self-government.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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