Bucking the odds

Outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman approached one of the departing delegates, Benjamin Franklin, and asked “what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin famously replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Keeping it is now iffier than at any time in living memory. When it comes to having a truly representative democracy and a government responsive to all of the people, let’s face it, the odds are stacked against us. Money has been crowned king of American politics by the highest court in the land. That means as the rich get richer, they also get more politically powerful. As they gain more and more power, they are increasingly able to rig the system in their favor.

We have to come to terms with the fact that this is an unfair fight. Keeping the republic means finding ways to beat the odds and elect representatives who break the mold and dare to be different. When running for office, especially for the first time, the natural impulse is to look at how others have done it and copy them. Going with the flow and campaigning conventionally means embracing the vast industry that has commandeered modern politics and locking arms with the industry professionals — pollsters, media consultants, campaign operatives, political strategists, telemarketers, list brokers, fundraising experts and advertising agents — who make a living by selling the idea that there is a formula for election campaigning and that if you follow it, you win.

Their formula isn’t shared in the form of an equation, but if it were, it would look something like this for a campaign for an office like state assembly:

One assembly candidate in rural Wisconsin described the campaign advice he was given a few years ago: Victory (V) depends on gathering endorsements (E) and raising $70,000 with most of it sent to an Alexandria, Virginia (zip code 22314) marketing firm to pay for seven mass-produced direct mailings (DM), and the rest going for a little paid media (pm) including some radio (r) and print advertising (pa) and get-out-the-vote (gotv) expenses like robocalls (rc) and printed door hangers (dh).

The candidate executed the plan. And lost. By a large margin. The formula failed him. Yet hundreds of candidates continued following the script in legislative contests throughout the state this past year, which is why close to $36 million was spent on those 2018 races. Adjust the formula for an election for a statewide office like governor, with a lot of paid media including an abundance of pricey TV ads, and the spending tally reaches a stratospheric $93 million.

In the end, the formula does violence to our republic. It destroys faith in democracy and trust in government. Money can buy a lot of things. It can’t buy faith. It can’t buy trust.

Keeping the republic we inherited comes down to refusing to play by rules that favor the rich and powerful. It comes down to discovering other political currencies that, when put to use creatively, can be more powerful than money. It comes down to building relationships and earning trust and restoring faith. More than anything, it comes down to enough of us being undaunted by the unfairness of the fight and the steepness of the odds.