Why the Long Campaign Season Has Been Bad for America

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Long before the first primary vote was cast, Glenn Greenwald identified all the pathologies that would follow.

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Six months before the first primary vote was cast in the current election cycle, Glenn Greenwald wrote a prescient item setting forth for his readers what they could expect in the coming months. Early on in the process, voters "like to flirt with candidates who present themselves as ideologues, but ultimately choose establishment-approved, establishment-serving functionaries perceived as electable," he explained. "In those rare instances when they nominate someone perceived as outside the establishment mainstream (Goldwater, McGovern), those candidates are quickly destroyed. The two-party system and these presidential campaigns are virtually guaranteed -- by design -- to produce palatable faces who perpetuate the status quo, placate the citizenry, and dutifully serve the nation's most powerful factions."

It has all come to pass.

The remainder of his column set forth all the pathologies our polity would suffer through over the course of the campaign. As I recount them, take solace in this comforting fact: Whether your candidate wins or loses, we're on the cusp of a respite from the awfulness of election season.

What has made these interminable months so bad?

During election season, "chatter, gossip and worthless speculation about the candidates' prospects ... drown out most other political matters .... A presidential term is 48 months; that the political media is transfixed by campaign coverage for 18 months every cycle means that a President can wield power with substantially reduced media attention for more than 1/3 of his term."

For politicians, election season ends up "bolstering orthodoxies and narrowing the range of permitted views."

"Perhaps the worst outcome of the protracted obsession with presidential campaigns is how it intensifies partisan tribalism, and bolsters divisions among ordinary Americans who have far more in common than differences," Greenwald wrote. "Because presidential elections are such a stark either/or affair, many people feel compelled to choose one side and then elevate its victory into the overarching -- even the only -- political priority that matters. For that reason, even those willing to criticize their own side's Leader a couple of years before the election become unwilling to do so as the election approaches, on the ground that nothing matters except boosting one's own team .... That, in turn, further reduces the already-low levels of independence, intellectual honesty, and -- most importantly -- accountability for those in power."

For partisans, "loyalty becomes the ultimate Litmus Test of whether you're on the side of Good: it's the supreme With-Us-or-With-the-Terrorists test, and few are willing to endure the punishments for failing it."

To sum up, "the winner-takes-all, Most-Important-Election-Ever hysteria that precedes" elections creates "the illusion of fundamentally stark choices. That's what makes the 18 months of screeching, divisive, petty, trivial rancor so absurd, so distracting, so distorting. Yes, it matters in some important ways who wins and sits in the Oval Office chair, but there are things that matter much, much more than that -- all of which are suffocated into non-existence by the... election circus."

This particular circus is about to shut down for two-and-a-half years. If only we could pack it into fewer months next time.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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