Elections: Nasty, British and Short

That's all they had time for.

Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Britain's political parties began their election campaigns over the weekend and on May 7th the country's citizens will vote. To many Americans, this idea is bound to seem bewildering -- yet, at the same time, strangely appealing.

Election campaigns that actually start and finish, and last just weeks. Could that be worth a try? Think of the time it would leave for governing.

Nowadays, U.S. election campaigning has no beginning and has no end. Positioning for the elections of 2016 -- still 20 months away -- started before the results of the 2014 vote were announced last November. The next contest for the presidency is fully engaged, even though most of the candidates haven't even said they're running. Soon it will be time to start thinking about the 2018 mid-terms.

An optimist would say that politics-as-permanent-campaign holds leaders continuously to account -- and what could be more democratic than that? The trouble is, it holds politicians accountable mainly for their performance as campaigners, not as participants in a functioning government.

Perpetual horse-race politics is all about short-term tactics, the latest headlines and what's trending on social media. Good policies and the patience to make them work are largely beside the point. The permanent campaign sucks up time and attention -- and demands lots and lots of money. It squanders political resources and makes good government harder. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

Granted, it's debatable whether the U.K., with its compressed electioneering, has been better governed than America. More government isn't necessarily better, as the Framers well understood. The U.S. Constitution's checks and balances deliberately make governing hard -- a wise dispensation, even though it can make holding office more an end in itself and less a means to getting things done. But the balance has been upset by the media's ever-shortening attention span and the wider public's diminishing engagement. That's a vicious circle, and in some ways it's gone too far.

One can debate institutional reforms, up to and including constitutional amendments, that might restore the balance. Term limits in Congress; four-year terms for the House of Representatives; single six-year terms for the president; mandatory voting; strict curbs on political spending; and so forth. Some of those things might be desirable, but none of them is happening any time soon.

The best hope is that the permanent campaign, by pure luck, produces leaders who recognize the problem and try to solve it by force of example. That, plus voters and media commentators who, out of sheer boredom, start taking more interest in policy and less in politicking.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.