Andrea Batista Schlesinger
Civics Ads! A Modest Proposal for Campaign Cash
Early this month the candidates for president announced their first quarter fundraising totals. When most people saw those huge totals, their eyes widened. Mine grew heavy.
Why? Because I'm preparing for hundreds of million of dollars worth of campaign commercials.
According to experts, more than half of the money raised by campaigns goes to media. And so, as each presidential campaign becomes more and more expensive, more and more money goes towards the ads that many Americans will see until they turn blue in the face (or red in the eye).
What's the impact of these ads? It's hard to say. Some of the ads stand out as capturing a particular sentiment of the electorate and giving voice to the change people want to see. Others are impressive soft-bio spots that can inspire. But far too many are indistinguishable, with fake "real" people telling us why such and such candidate is actually the one that represents "our" interests and nothing substantive communicated beyond a link to a Web site address.
I think it's time that we mix it up. So here's my proposal to the candidates for president: make the American public smarter through your ads. Spend 50% of your media budget on advertisements that have as their primary goal educating people about their government and the important issues facing us. Call it civics education by commercial.
Why? Why not. We are living in a time in which fewer then half of Americans participate in the electoral process. Few know what Congress does. Civics education is in massive decline. The impact is most clearly felt on our younger generations whose educations are dominated by the subjects that correspond to a standardized test. It's no wonder that six percent of eighth graders nationwide are able to describe two ways that countries benefit from having a constitution. A little over a third of young Americans can't tell you the length of a term of a member of the House of Representatives.
Maybe we can use the campaign season to do more than excite people around a candidacy, but also to educate people about their government.
How about ads that explain how a bill becomes a law? Or how people can be involved in their local governments? How our Congress is structured? Or ads that explore issues in-depth: What does it mean to have universal health care? What does Medicare Part D really do? What do other organized democracies offer their citizens? How has our health care policy evolved over time? Why was Social Security created? What is our immigration policy? How do we make tax policy?
Yes, the exploration of each of those issues will be influenced by the bias of the explorer. But as campaign seasons grow unseasonably long, with no corresponding increase in the public's attention span, why not take advantage of this opportunity to actually connect people to their government instead of just a voting booth?
Of course this idea is inherently unrealistic. Why would a presidential candidate spend money to something that isn't directly benefiting her campaign? Well, it depends on how you define benefit. One can easily make the case that a more informed public is better than an ignorant public, especially when the 2008 winner wants to build popular support for a policy agenda.
It has become fashionable to decry the challenged state of our democracy. Why not do something about it?