When it comes to restoring enthusiasm in American history, David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Foundation likes to shine a spotlight on the people and organizations that are the best teachers of the topic.
So it’s a great pleasure to interview Richard Semiatin, the Academic Director of American Politics at American University — a man who has spent decades studying politicians and elections.
Indeed, he is the author of “Campaigns in the 21st Century” (McGraw-Hill, 2004), and editor of “Campaigns on the Cutting Edge” (CQ Press, 2008), the book’s second edition (2012) — and just weeks ago he released the third edition, available here.
In the book, Semiatin explains that the evolution of the modern political campaign has taken us from television sets in the living room to wireless new media in the hands of voters.
“Reaching voters with targeted messages, candidates increasingly rely on consumer-driven techniques,” he writes. “What works at the national level can be tailored to work even more effectively at the individual level. Future campaigns will continue to make use of recent innovations like meetups, blogs, and Internet polling.
“Newer tactics such as fundraising on the web and get out the vote drives with microtargeting via Blackberrys and PDAs are changing the way candidates advertise, ask for money, interact with the media, coordinate with their party organizations, and make the most of interest group support.”
What, then, are the implications for the democratic process and governance? And does Semiatin think Hilary will be our next president?
Scroll down to learn about that — and more. — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation.
Hope Katz Gibbs: First, let’s set the table for what we’ll be talking about today. Clearly, you are an expert in American politics — and in fact were interviewed countless times during the 2000 election. Tell us about that experience.
Richard Semiatin: It was frenetic and chaotic. One network actually wanted me to go live nationally how kids were almost coming to blows in the dorms about the controversial Florida recount between Bush and Gore. I then told them that they were being exploitive. This came up in conversation about five minutes before we went on air. I refused and threatened that they would have dead air space if they brought it up. The question never came up.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Rick, take us back a few centuries to the founding fathers, which is the focus of what we’re helping more kids and adults truly appreciate. In fact, you have a list of 5 things that transcend the American Revolution to today, including:
- Abort, Retry, Fail
- Outs Are In
- All the world’s a stage except in the United States where it is many stages
David Bruce Smith: So let’s talk about Reason. The United States was the first system designed in world history, with a set of written rules to allow reason to prevail. But, of course, nothing is perfect.
Richard Semiatin: That’s right. While nothing is perfect, that has worked pretty well. We are “a nation of laws, not of men” wrote John Adams. This was a direct attack on the monarchical or dictatorial governments. While outsized Presidents such as Nixon and Johnson stretched the boundaries of the system, the fabric did not break even when they may have broken laws.
David Bruce Smith: Next, you talk about Abort, Retry, Fail, which is the system of lawmaking set up in the U.S. Constitution.
Richard Semiatin: That’s right, and it’s our rulebook and it deliberately makes it difficult to pass laws. In a parliamentary system, you have a lower house (usually with more power), which is ruled by a majority that writes a bill that becomes a law by a vote of 50 percent +1.
Here the game is much more complicated. The House can pass legislation, and it can fail in the Senate; or visa versa. Or the House and Senate can pass identical legislation and the President can veto it; or she/he can sign it into law. The purpose was to ensure that the national government not get too powerful and that the states would still be autonomous and powerful. Even in our modern world of jets, iPhones and self-driven cars, less than 10 percent of all bills become public law.
David Bruce Smith: Now tell us what you mean when you talk about Opportunity.
Richard Semiatin: This is the thrust behind our system to enable citizens to have freedom to make choices. It does not guarantee results; but it does guarantee the right to make choices. There was one tremendous flaw when this concept was created—choice was not given to African-Americans. In fact, they were subjugated which was a great contradiction. Yet, it was this concept of freedom that eventually over-road subjugation and began to provide a path to opportunity for African-Americans, women and for others.
David Bruce Smith: Your fourth point is that the Outs Are In. Can you explain what you mean here?
Richard Semiatin: The United States was the first nation in world history that protected minority beliefs and opinions. The nation was settled by a hodge-podge of religious cults, other groups and individuals seeking fortune—some of whom were quite oddball. Today, the same oddball groups can be protected. Example: the Westboro Baptist Church that protested funerals for Iraq veterans claiming it was the immorality of the United States that brought the wrath of God against our nation and soldiers. It is repulsive to 99.9 percent of the population; but it is protected speech even for the tiniest and most repugnant groups.
David Bruce Smith: Last, but not least, explain your last point — that All the world’s a stage except in the United States where it is many stages.
Richard Semiatin: Today we often talk in the high-tech or business world about a platform to build a product and sell it. Unitary governments are the same where all the power rests in one body and in some localities—total equals two. The fact is that in the United States we have multiple stages or platforms for governing. We have local governments, as do other nations. But we were the first nation to have state governments.
Build upon that a federal government with three branches of government, executive, legislative, and judicial — and even there power is divided in the legislative branch between the House and Senate! The total equals six!! No nation in the world has anything remotely this complicated. … yet it works.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Indeed it does! Looking back at the first 100 years and today, what do you think is the biggest lesson learned? And do you think the Founding Fathers would be proud of what we’d done with their big ideas?
Richard Semiatin: The biggest lesson learned is that government by the people and for the people, as Lincoln said, always remains a work in progress. An imperfect work, you know? But in the end, it beats all the other systems because it has produced the greatest power in world history; and that power has good not bad intentions. That has never happened before.
I think they would be proudest of the fact that the separation of powers between all three branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial—still exists today. Without it, one branch could assert all the power and render the others useless. We would have lost our democratic freedoms. The Bill of Rights would be meaningless if one branch would remain unchecked.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Before we let you go, tell us what’s on the forefront for you? You have a new book coming out in 2016, “Campaigns on the Cutting Edge,” which is a third edition. And you continue to teach at American. What else is in store?
Richard Semiatin: I’m excited about the book. We have some great authors including Tad Devine who is Bernie Sanders’ chief strategist and Michael Turk who ran the digital/internet operation for the Bush re-election campaign in 2004. In terms of myself, I’m taking a break and rest up so that my cupboard of ideas can become full again.
Click here to find all of our interviews with America’s leading historians at GratefulAmericanFoundation.com.