Sixty years ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brother Bobby ran what is considered to be the most innovative Presidential campaign ever.
It is remembered for its slick ads. The campaign was fuelled by great wads of money, courtesy of JFK’s rich father, Joe.
The influence of TV was growing fast and Kennedy mastered the beast, quickly learning how to use teleprompters while avoiding the wordiness of politicians used to speaking on radio. This was the age of mass advertising and the catchy jingle used in brand promotions.
The Kennedy political branding template has since been adopted by leaders such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama — the latter making full use of social media techniques.
The 2016 US election brought us data-led campaigning with discrete groups of individuals targeted. We now have a strange mix of data analytics and the Barnum & Bailey style campaigning of Donald Trump.
The Trump effect suggests a backlash against slick campaigning. However, America’s wealthy continue to influence political decision making through so-called ‘super PACs’, committees that may raise and spend unlimited sums.
In Ireland, the high point of business sponsorship of political parties was reached during the Noughties and the era of the Galway tent.
Some of the helicopter buzz has gone out of our elections since then. What replaced it was a semi-permanent oppositionist campaigning that peaked with the water charges protests which drained the coalition Government and its propped up successor of much of their reformist intent.
Since 2015, we have been in the era of safety-first Government and a kind of stand-off between those keen to guard the public purse and those anxious to open the wallets to tackle the crises in housing and health which developed since the financial crash.
In a democracy, campaigns should be a time when people take stock of the major developments. Instead, what happens is that once off events distract while the public form judgements based on impressions. The choice is between steady as she goes and ‘throw out the bums.’ The voters rarely get to consider issues of fundamental importance.
A few examples:
How the country may be transformed by climate change. How technology is impacting on our lives and what we can do about it.
How more people can be reconnected with the fast-paced modern economy and brought in from the margins.
How the twin crises of health and housing — which are not unconnected — can be truly addressed.
How rural Ireland can address some of the huge changes coming down the track whether environmental, demographic or in food markets.
The mishandling of the mental health crisis, the spread of drug use, rising demand on the medical services.
The effectiveness of public administration in an increasingly complex rule-bound age is in doubt.
These are all issues which can be addressed on an ongoing basis, but once the noise and thunder of an election campaign abates and a new Government is formed, real decision making on matters of vital importance is handed back to a small group of politicians and officials, many of whom suffer from deficits of time and expertise.
There have been important innovations in Government. Important work is carried out by Oireachtas committees, though there has also been a degree of opportunistic grandstanding by certain members.
As we have discovered, there is much disfunction in British political life, but one part of their Government that works well is their system of parliamentary committees. Our committee system should be better resourced and the media should give more recognition to the important work carried out there.
But the making of decisions on key matters such as the proposed metro and quality bus corridors should be broadened out.
In the run-up to the referendum on abortion, citizens assemblies played an important part in ensuring that the debate during the referendum was conducted at a reasonably high level.
We need to involve more people with technical knowledge and expertise in the discussion, at an early stage of plans. Strong chairpersons will be required so that discussions are not dominated by cranks. The crafting of good consultation mechanisms is a vital, but not an easy business.
A new national infrastructure body made up of people with technical expertise is badly needed, but it should itself be subject to close examination by the public including, in particular, people with relevant professional expertise, active or retired.
It seems clear that the complexities of modern society, the scale of the challenges coming down the track, are such that they cannot be tackled simply by a small group of elected politicians, operating to 24/7 agendas, dictated by the need to react to day to day crises.
Our democratic decision-making process needs to be one where discussion and analysis is ongoing and where decisions are crafted and sometimes amended in response to the popular will.
Five yearly PR driven campaigns of the sort presided over by a Kennedy or a Blair, never mind a Trump, simply will no longer suffice.
At times, it seems that decisions which could end up costing the country billions are being taken by people who are living deeply distracted lives, based on partial information supplied by parties with personal and sometimes financial agendas.
This really is no way to run the ‘national railroad.’