How to sell a product called democracy

What would it take to get more Americans to buy into our democracy? REUTERS/Jim Young

Marketing – something I know quite a bit about – and democracy are closely connected. Exploring this connection could help us improve not only our country’s electoral and government system, but also the lives of many Americans.

Marketers have a specific mindset. They start by asking what people want and need. They deeply research some group they wish to satisfy. They design a product, service or solution that will attract that chosen group. They win by making a strong promise and delivering on it.

I helped revolutionize the field of marketing by making the argument that marketers don’t have to limit themselves to thinking about physical products and services. They can also look outside business at other institutions and practices and ask whether they are well-designed and effective in serving their target users. Are our schools producing skilled and educated citizens? Is our food system delivering good nutrition? Is our health care system delivering healthy citizens?

We only have to look at world statistics to realize that the U.S. is not a top performer in any of these areas.

In a 2013 study, U.S. students ranked 36th in math and 26th in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In public health, although we are first in health care expenditures as a percent of GDP, we have lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than 16 other rich nations. The U.S. ranks 25th in the world in quality of overall infrastructure due to the poor condition of our roads, bridges and ports. In a 2016 study using 65 variables to measure the world’s “best countries,” the U.S. ranked fourth after Germany, Canada and the U.K.

So how can these systems be improved to deliver better outcomes for more people? Drawing on my economics and marketing background, I try to answer this question in my new book, “Democracy in Decline.”

Too much money

Has indifference and dark money diminished our democracy? REUTERS/Brandon Wade

We are all aware of the political party gridlock paralyzing our political system.

Much of this dysfunction stems from the fact that to get elected, politicians must raise increasing amounts of money. The 2012 presidential election cost US$7 billion. The estimated cost of the 2016 presidential election is $10 billion. The money comes from two deep-pocketed sources: big business and the wealthy. The Supreme Court’s approval of Citizens United, which holds that companies are people who are entitled to free speech, unleashed piles of money to spend on elections.

All of this has diminished the principle of “one citizen, one vote,” diluting the value of our democratic process. Even worse, 40 percent of our citizens don’t even vote in a presidential elections – a sign that civic participation is a product that’s not selling.

Even if we all voted, it doesn’t mean that our chosen elected officials would represent our interests. Many elected officials will place extra weight on the views and interests of their donors and their party, meaning that the policy decisions of Congress are essentially “bought and paid for.”

In addition to big business and the wealthy who fund their campaigns, Congress has long been highly influenced by lobbyists. A 2012 survey by American National Election Studies shows that nearly 80 percent of the public believes that government is run for a “few big interests,” rather than the benefit of all.

I agree with Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, who argued in a recent TED Talk that capitalism is “eating” our democracy. Varoufakis argues that the increasing amount of money influencing our elections and our government is destroying the proper working of our democracy.

Time for some soul-searching

In this time of crisis, we have to rethink a great deal about our system. Here are some good questions for the American electorate to ask themselves:

  • Why do our elections go on for three years with great cost when Britain runs its elections in 30 days?

  • Why do we have a system where 96 percent of political incumbents got reelected in 2014 despite Congress getting an approval rate as low as 9 percent - arguably a result of gerrymandering, the practice of reshaping congressional districts so they are made up primarily of the incumbent’s voters?

  • Why do we accept a system where in 2015 there are 11,520 federal lobbyists registered in Washington, D.C. who are daily informing, influencing and entertaining our 535 voting Congress members to the tune of $3.5 billion in 2012?

  • Why are we OK with our political representatives working “part-time,” as former Representative Tim Roemer of Indiana described it, because they are spending so much time on the phone raising money for their reelection and party?

  • Why do we let the parties have superdelegates whose votes can distort the actual popular votes won by the competing candidates?

Access to good information

The concentration of wealth is such that the top three percent controls 50 percent of the nation’s income and wealth, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The growing level of income inequality is dooming the nation to slower economic growth because it leaves too few dollars in the hands of our buying public and makes it more difficult to afford education, a driver of growth. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is putting major political power in the hands of the one percent who can even convince low income people to vote against their own best interests.

I think we need to do more to promote civic engagement to our citizens.

We need to rescind the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. We need to shorten the election season by limiting the amount of time allowed for political advertising. We need to consider raising the tax rates on wealthier citizens to reduce their disproportional influence on our legislators and to put the funds into improving our education and health systems.

I’m in good company when it comes to making these recommendations. They are, without doubt, extremely ambitious. Turning them into achievable goals will take strong leadership and creative marketing thinking and planning to reach our politicians, media – and the citizens themselves.