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
Fairchild 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