Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Biggest Obstacle to Electing the Right President

Like many members of the Skilled Political Debate Group at Blog Catalog, I'm marking the one-year countdown to the election with some thoughts on what's going to make it tough to elect the right President in 2008.

The biggest obstacle to electing the right President is the marketing culture in which we live. It's a culture in which sound bites are powerful and anything we really want people to hear must be reduced to a few-second clip. It's a culture in which the written word has to be formatted in bullet points and short, bold-headed paragraphs if it's to be read. It's a culture in which newspapers are careful to work the key points into the first paragraph of an article because they know that the vast majority of their "readers" never turn to page eight to continue the story. And it's a culture in which most newspapers and consumer publications work to keep their articles at a 7th-9th grade reading level.

On what, then, do voters base their decisions? Note that I did not say, "On what, then, are voters to base their decisions?". The answers to the latter question are myriad and crystal clear. One good piece of information would be a candidate's voting record as a Senator or Congressman--but not the checklist many interest groups or neutral voting organizations put out. That's not enough information, not because the information can't be trusted but because it's meaningless standing alone. Knowing that a Congressman voted "for the bankruptcy bill" or that a Senator "opposed a bill that would have brought our troops home from Iraq" is meaningless unless you know what the bill contained, what its impact would have been or has been, and what information was available at the time the official made his decision. The significance of those votes would also be clearer if you knew whether or not they were consistent with the candidate's previous positions, and if not, what accounted for the change.

And, of course, as our tolerance for dense text and long explanations diminishes, our world is growing more complex. At the very moment we most need to focus deeply, to understand the details, to analyze the connections and to think beyond the sound bite, our time and our patience have all but disappeared. The vast majority of us simply don't have enough information to cast a reasonable vote.

There's a lot of talk every election year about how terrible it is that voter turnout is so low. I'll agree that it's a shame that more potential voters don't participate in the political process, but I don't think that's all about voting. In fact, I think too many people are voting. People who are voting based on ten-second sound bites and whether or not someone "looks Presidential" should either be educating themselves about the issues and the candidates or staying home from the polls. And those aren't the worst votes cast by any stretch of the imagination--they pale in comparison to the voters in the 1986 Illinois primary who made Janice Hart and Mark
the Democratic candidates for Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor on the strength of their NAMES. After the election, many voters admitted that they'd had no idea who the candidates were. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about why voters who (by their own admission) knew nothing about the candidates chose Janice Hart over the party-supported Aurelia Pucinski. Because the candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor run on a single-vote ticket like the President and Vice President, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson III left the party's ticket and ran as a Solidarity candidate, losing the election by the widest margin in Illinois history.

Just a little rule of thumb: If you've never heard of a candidate, YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN'T VOTE FOR HIM.

We hear a lot of sound bites about how voting is a right, or a privilege or a responsibility--but just like the politicians' sound bites leave out all of the unpleasant or complicated or conflicting details, the voting sound bites leave out a critical fact: the right (or responsibility) to vote carries with it a responsibility to make educated decisions. A vote that's a guess is worse than no vote at all.

Here are a few of the other posts on this topic so far.



If you'd like to participate, simply create your own blog post with the title "The Biggest Obstacle to Electing the Right President" and:

-email the link to either libdrone at gmail dot com or TLSanders at gmail dot com
-post the link in the political debate group at the link at the top of this page
-leave your link in a comment to this post


Alan said...

I would only like to add a small plug here-- if you do vote and if you Don't know about some or all of the issues or candidates that will be on your ballot, head to your local library. Your reference librarian will be Happy to provide you with sources of objective information about all of the candidates and issues and can guide you to many resources you may not be aware of.

I absolutely agree that an ignorant vote is much worse than not voting, and hope you will visit your library before the election if you plan to vote and don't know the score.

MS said...

"In fact, I think too many people are voting." --- As you know, Tiffany, I don't agree. More people need to vote.

Informing themselves is less difficult that you make it seem, I think. Yes, the issues are complex, and it is hard to separate rhetoric from fact, but a great deal can be accomplished just by paying a little more attention than many people do at the moment.

Of course, it would help if the media did more point-by-point comparisons of the candidates. but is politics only about stances? Is it really so awful that personality, values, and leadership matter so much?

RockStories said...

MS, I'm not suggesting that it's hard for people to inform themselves, simply that they don't do it. And what's worse, that many who don't are entirely unaware that they haven't because they feel informed by what they've heard on the news.

I definitely think that values and character (not so much personality) are valid factors in making political choices. I've known personally several politicians whose views I didn't entirely agree with, but whom I knew to have integrity and concern for humanity and felt could be "trusted" with the office whereas I might have been far less certain about another candidate who appeared on paper to agree with all of my goals. But I believe it is impossible to validly make judgments about those things based on television clips and voting records. We are reduced to acting based on what our politicians have done in the past because the vast majority of us do not have access to firsthand information with which to judge their character as human beings.

Probably the most dramatic example of this (at least in recent times) is the astonishing number of Christians who voted for George Bush with slighly varying versions of the statement, "He's a good man. He walks with God."

If all of the millions of people who claimed "the sanctity of human life" as their primary concern, or one of their primary concerns, had bothered to inform themselves just enough to say, "But wait...then why did he sign that futile care bill in Texas?" we might well live in a different country today...and we would very likely be throwing away less human life on a daily basis right now.

GreyTheory said...

Linden LaRouche used to choose his candidates based on their names: Jones, Johnson, Smith, etc.

Sometimes is worked.


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