Democracy or Spectacle?

Taggy Elliot

US Presidential elections – are they democratic or simply a spectacle?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that the American presidential election is taking place this year. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the final decision is being made imminently, but in fact election night isn’t until November. Considering the hype surrounding who is going to lead the Democrats and Republicans- let alone who will become president- is it possible that the presidential election has become more of a spectacle than a democratic process?


There’s no doubt that the election process is entertaining, with rallies full of patriotic banners, rousing music and passionate speeches. It is full of suspense, with events such as the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries beginning the process of deciding who should run for President. The race was the most globally discussed topic on Facebook in 2015, and cables news channels are attracting record audiences. However, these viewing figures do not translate into votes: in 2012 the voter turnout was 53.6%, and it hasn’t risen above 60% since 1968. This could be linked to voter suppression, which includes the purging of electoral rolls, the mismanagement of polling stations, and photo ID laws that arguably penalize poorer voters.

It does not help that registration and voting methods differ from state to state. This was highlighted as an issue in 2000, when a local official in Florida designed “butterfly ballots,” which confused elderly voters. Additionally, elections are noticeably underfunded, particularly in urban areas populated by minorities, and the long queues mean that people cannot cast their vote by the time disenfranchised. Moreover, more than forty states are safely Republican or Democrat. As a result, some of the most populous states, such as Texas (Republican), New York (Democrat) and California (Democrat), are ignored by the campaign trail, which distorts changes made to policies.

Modern day campaigns last for almost two years, with the first candidacy announcements for this election being made in March 2015, which means that money is now a bigger factor than ever before. The 2012 campaign cost a record-breaking $2 billion, with the costs of this election being estimated at $5 billion. This is a reason why some candidates drop out before voting even begins, as although they have lots of experience, they do not have the funding necessary to compete.

Unfortunately, this isn’t helped by the media. Not only are reports on the election a prime example of “horse race” journalism, which is based on character rather than policies, the amount of airtime given to candidates shows vast discrepancies. This is apparent in the US networks’ evening news in 2015; whilst Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rukis were each given 57 minute’s coverage or less, Donald Trump got 327. Although it is hard to ignore a man who makes such ridiculous claims, he gets more press as a result, highlighting the unequal nature of the process.

Looking at these statistics, it is incredible that such an important decision (the American president is one of the most powerful people on earth) is taken with such disdain. We can hope that this election’s record-breaking viewing figures will translate into higher voter participation this time around. However, it seems currently that beneath the surface of this spectacle, there are huge flaws in the democratic process.

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