If we were honest about the sorry state of our democracy, we would admit that elections have become mostly irrelevant. In almost every contest, we could avoid a lot of fuss and bother - and get the same result - if, instead of holding an Election Day vote, we just tallied which candidate raised the most money and declared that person the winner.
"It would save us the façade of going through the motions," agrees Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "Who spends the most wins the race. That's almost always the case."
Indeed, Heck has to go all the way back to 1990 to find a major state example of a candidate getting elected despite being significantly outspent. That was when Republican Scott Klug surprised everyone - including himself - by beating 32-year-incumbent Congressman Bob Kastenmeier, who had a $371,928 to $178,129 advantage. (Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle was slightly outspent by Scott McCallum in 2002, but outside groups like WEAC and state Indian tribes gave Doyle the spending edge.)
In the last three state legislative elections, from 2000 to 2004, the candidate who spent the most won in 267 of 297 Assembly races (90%) and 43 of 49 Senate races (88%), according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. And many of the exceptions involved incumbents who were secure due to incumbency or party affiliation.
For the big, important races, money rules the day. And nearly all of this money goes to the same end: buying ads on TV. Our democracy has been subverted into a battle for the hearts and minds of people so politically shallow they actually make choices based on 15- and 30-second TV spots.
Since you're reading Isthmus, you're probably not in this category. But if you know folks who are - people who cite a TV ad when explaining how they plan to vote - you need to grab them by the shoulders, shake them violently and scream into their face: "You should not be voting! You don't know enough! Stay home, and leave the job to those who know what's going on."
It's probably hopeless. There are multitudes of Americans who feel entitled to vote even though they don't pay any real attention to the issues or candidates. Most of the media encourage this irresponsible behavior at every turn. As a result, our democracy is being destroyed from within.
"Studies show that 75% to 80% of voters in the country get most of their political information from television, and most of that is from commercials," says Heck, adding that the public's level of political engagement has been declining for decades. "Most people, their lives are too busy, too distracted. They don't tune into politics until the very end." And then the ubiquitous TV ads are there to tell them how to vote.
A local blogger, Russell Wallace, has mapped out (http://reform-dem.blogspot.com) the striking correlation between areas where attorney general candidate Kathleen Falk made heavy ad buys - especially the one highlighting her rival's 2004 drunk-driving bust - and where she drew the most votes in last month's primary.
"Yes boys and girls, money does buy elections, and negative ads do work," Wallace reflects. "But what surprised me most is that they worked so well in this case. I've always imagined primary voters to be far more politically informed and less likely to be influenced by such tactics than general election voters.
"I was wrong."
Live and learn.
None of this is to say that Falk did not deserve to win. She's clearly an impressive candidate, and well-qualified for the job. But in this and other races, questions of merit are simply not as critical as who runs the most ads.
The candidates themselves know this. That's why many feel free to blow off the print press; they'd rather not waste time on the tiny minority of voters who seek an informed understanding of the issues.
How else to explain the behavior of Republicans Mark Green, J.B. Van Hollen and Dave Magnum, who are running, respectively, for governor, attorney general and Congress? All three have spurned interview requests from Isthmus and, presumably, other media.
Van Hollen's campaign has been especially awful. Spokesman Brian Fraley and manager Juston Johnson have refused to return calls seeking a moment of the candidate's time. Fraley even balked at telling Isthmus what Van Hollen's mom did occupationally, for a thumbnail bio.
This behavior says a lot about the people seeking these offices. It shows that, if elected, they will not even try to represent or be responsive to all of their constituents. They will play favorities and maintain enemies lists, using their offices to reward and punish.
And what cowards these people are! What yellow-bellied, lily-livered, jelly-spined cowards. Take Van Hollen, for instance. He wants to be the state's leading law-enforcement official. His job will be to take on hardened criminals, stand up to powerful special interests, resist political pressure from all quarters, and decide complex matters of law without fear or favor.
Yeah, right. This is a guy who hides behind his handlers from reporters who might ask tough questions or hold different views. What a wimp.
Falk's camp, it should be noted, promptly agreed to an interview, then failed to follow through on a promise to set something up. And while further pestering may pay off, it's clear such contacts are a low priority, compared to the essential work of raising cash for TV ads.
(Last week, Falk was a no-show at a scheduled early-morning debate sponsored by the Dane County Public Affairs Council. Van Hollen, who poured $700,000 of his own money into winning the primary, gave a bravado solo performance, accompanied by an aide who was there seeking checks.)
Maybe the argument could be made that the system is working as it should - that candidates win by getting individuals and special interests to give more money to them than to the other guy. If that's the kind of democracy we want, we should be thrilled with the one we have.
But why bother with the voting? Let's just pick the winner based on cash totals and give the money that would have gone to those commercials to worthy causes. Common Cause in Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign come to mind.