The ideals of democracy often collide with the realities of voting and elections. While elections are the most familiar and symbolically potent feature of democracy, they are also the focal point of conflicts between apathy and engagement; between an impartial principle of broad participation and the often overriding influence of money; between the human faces of elections and the masks of technology and mass communication at all levels of electoral competition.
Elections epitomize the capital-intensive nature of the political system in Texas and the U.S. today, even as familiar traces of old style politics remain. As the 2004 election illustrated, campaigns retain a labor-intensive element that will never completely disappear. As election day neared, large numbers of volunteers and paid campaign workers spend long hours going door-to-door, working phone banks, helping voters get to the polls, planting signs, and making last ditch appeals at neighborhood polling places. Though the tools have become more modern, the basic need to mobilize and organize voter support has changed little since the advent of mass democracy in the early nineteenth century. These efforts still reappear on a significant scale on election day.
But if the core activities so evident on election day seem familiar from the heyday of labor-intensive politics, the evolution of communication technology and the nature of the political system have fundamentally changed the campaigning that both precedes and envelops the final, laborious push to get voters to the polls. Voters make their decisions about whether to vote, and for whom, in the midst of a vast, highly technical, and cash-hungry system of professional campaigning. Average voters engaging in small scale politics handing out fliers, talking to their neighbors and family members, knocking on doors, setting up little Web pages using their personal accounts persist. But these efforts take place within a larger network of activities.
We live on a different planet than the world of nineteenth-century political mobilization, the ghost of which briefly reappears every campaign season. New techniques and technology have made campaigns irreversibly capital-intensive. In the war to win elections, successful candidates deploy polls, automated calls, 30-second "spots," media consultants, image consultants, speech writers, and statistical voter turnout models.
Even a close look at the ground troops engaging in time-honored campaign activities like knocking on doors and driving voters to the polls reveals the intrusion of money and technology. Block walkers and van drivers go armed with lists of voters generated by sophisticated software operated by highly paid consultants. Voters may go to the polls armed with personal digital assistants, laptops, or cell phones. Phone bank volunteers deliver expertly crafted messages to carefully selected targets. And of course, amidst all this election day labor, campaigns air last minute ads non-stop on cable and broadcast TV.
Watchdog groups have not hesitated in their efforts to keep pace, incorporating some of the same techniques and technology especially the Internet, traditional publishing, and broadcast communications to publicize the size and nature of campaign contributions and to raise questions about the dilemmas posed by our system of financing and organizing electoral campaigns.
Meanwhile, campaign finance laws in Texas have achieved little in recent years beyond instituting reporting requirements and making information more available to those who know where to find it on the Internet. In a political culture that emphasizes laissez-faire approaches in politics as much as in business, and in which business interests are seen as important constituents of a part-time legislature, there has been little legislative interest in staunching the flow of money into politics.
Grassroots organizations have mounted efforts with some success to change the laws regulating campaign contributions, or to counteract the advantages enjoyed by powerful interests. And close elections may still be won by the superior "ground game" effort, as we heard repeatedly in the run-up to and the debriefing after the 2004 election. But the preservation of a style of politics built around active individual participation and the incorporation of interested, motivated voters will require constant accommodation to the presence of money and mass media and the role of ever more sophisticated technology, which both seem to guarantee. Political campaigning continues to incorporate new individuals and groups, but it requires them to adapt to the ever increasing capital-intensiveness of contemporary politics.