…and the biggest problem with democracy is that every damn fool gets one vote. You heard me right. The metric I’m using to judge my fellow man is information. An informed voter understands the choices being offered in the voting booth, and is savvy enough to balance intellect with heart when marking the ballot.
I bring this up because every election convinces me that a scary percentage of voters do not understand the consequences of their actions. The 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? dealt with this very question: why do people vote against their own self interest?
I can answer that question with a single word: ignorance. Worse, a scary percentage of that ignorance is willful. If you need some proof, check out this NPR story on what Brits googled immediately after their historic vote to leave the European Union. According to Google Trends, the top two searches related to the subject were…
1. What does it mean to leave the EU?
2. What is the EU?
I repeat to make my point: this is what they looked up AFTER they voted.
In the hours and days following the shocking and unexpected victory for “Leave,” I watched financial markets plunge in overreaction, and interviews of British voters regretting their “Leave” choice because they never, ever thought it would win.
Demographic data suggests that the British “Leave” voters were rural, white, and middle-class—and thus didn’t have much investment in the stock market to watch diminish. On the other hand, their lowered their own wages by devaluing the Pound. That is, unless they never buy products made outside Britain. Right.
And now two of the faces of the Brexit campaign have run away from the prospect of actual governance: Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Like the dog who finally catches the car he’s been chasing. Oh shit, this thing is so big! What I’d like to know: when did they realize that they couldn’t keep the promises they’d made? Did they know all along? Did they believe that their side could never win? Or did they realize that they couldn’t govern the hot mess they stirred up?
Commentators quickly began arguing that the Brexit win was an expression of the same populist anger that Trump is surfing. For some, probably. But for many, it’s also an expression of their ignorance. The problem with U.S. presidential campaigns is that in addition to impossible promises, they also turn on details that have little to do with actual governing. You’ve read this from me before: campaigns do almost nothing to reveal how a candidate would actually run the country.
The news media is largely responsible for this. They repeat misquotes and missteps, seek out dramatic optics and slogans, and revel in ratings-grabbing footage of opponents mischaracterizing each other. Not to mention broadcasting their outright lies without a challenge.
But insisting on facts in real time? Not so much. Here’s a New York Times list of popular myths that have been campaign staples for years for years. Some highlights:
- Manufacturing in the U.S. is dead.
In truth, manufacturing output in the U.S. is at the highest rate it has ever been. Manufacturing employment is down, because of efficiency and automation. In plain English: robots now do most factory work in this country, and more efficient processes have reduced the need for humans where they are used at all.
- Tax cuts will unleash growth.
“Trickle down economics” has been tried multiple times during the last 35 years, and history shows that it does not work. Period. For a comparison, Bill Maher has a great monologue on how the California “laboratory of democracy”—controlled entirely by Democrats—proves that raising taxes on the rich and regulating industries does not destroy your economy. California is chugging along right now while states that cut taxes and regulations—Kansas and Louisiana—are failing economically.
- The next president can fix all problems quickly.
This gets disproven after every election, but the American electorate has an amazingly short memory.
Here’s how it works during election season: repeat any fantasy often enough and it will become fact in the minds of voters—at least until the new president takes office and reality sets in again. George W. Bush failed to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Barack Obama failed to close Guantanamo because it wasn’t up to just him. Almost nothing in government is simple.
But one thing about this election is certain: the next president will tilt the Supreme Court in a direction that will last for a generation. That alone is reason to vote, no matter how much you dislike the candidate or the process. Do you really want Donald Trump appointing his own sister?
A decade ago, I entered a contest of ideas for improving life with a proposal to fix the problem that elections do not reveal a candidate’s ability to govern. My solution (which did not win, place, or show) was to subject candidates to public tests that measure governing skills.
My idea began with a software consortium analyzing historical data about crises such as Hurricane Katrina, or the Great Depression, or terrorist attacks. Or things as mundane as responding to the effect of lower taxes and ending regulations, or the effect of automation on manufacturing.
The consortium would translate past events into “situation > response > result” scenarios, and create software that could generate a hypothetical situation and then project the probable results of various government responses. Think of it as a planet-sized Sims game.
In a public forum, candidates would offer their responses to hypothetical crises. The software would compare the candidates’ ideas to the responses-and-results in its database—potentially drawn from all of history—and output how successful each idea might be, based on how successful similar responses had been in the past.
You can probably see some of the issues with this plan already: Would coders weight the results to match their political leaning? What about expecting that past performance can guarantee similar results in the future? It’s fair to question any test’s veracity.
But compare this exercise to the circus we have now and then tell me that it wouldn’t be worth trying. News organizations could sponsor the tests, TV could broadcast them, and we could at least compare how candidates would respond to crises. In real time.
Voters would have a practical tool to help them decide which candidate might actually succeed at governing. Informed voting—what a concept. And what a brainstorming tool for the officeholder, after the election!
Even our pre-industrial Founding Fathers understood the uninformed voter. The country was full of them at its founding: farmers who came to town once a week and didn’t read anything longer than a sign. How to reach them? How to be fair to them? Electors.
You vote for an elector, as do a number of other people. That elector becomes the proxy for you and thousands of others. He then votes in the actual presidential election. Because this elector has studied the issues and the candidates, and as your representative also considers your best interests, he’s an informed voter. He’s not swayed by grandiose lies or election day bribes. That’s the theory, anyway.
The concept of electors lives on to this day, in primaries and in the Electoral College where the official presidential election happens. Both systems have come under fire for not accurately reflecting the actual will of the voters. It’s true, but it’s also true that our poor election turnout slants the results.
These days, each of us gets to cast his own ballot, when we do choose to vote. But even that is compromised because it winds up as winner-take-all in most voting districts / states. You can bet that Republicans are cursing that stupid “one man, one vote rule” the very same as I am, except for different reasons.
Where they could, Republicans have passed laws that were designed to limit voting by the minorities who traditionally vote for Democrats. Their tools for tilting an election rightward: fewer polling stations, longer lines, ID requirements that cost more than the poorest voters can afford. It’s a supreme irony to me that protecting the right to own guns could be one motivation for denying the right to vote.
As we plummet headlong into the two nominating conventions this month, mystery still swirls around what Trump’s event will be like. Protesting? For sure, that. But what about… Infighting? Gunfire? Public speeches given by people with no training in public speaking?
The mind boggles. And the heart yearns for another Clint-talks-to-a-chair video…
I will be watching, and yearning.
A quick note re: rumors that Trump’s VP choice will be either Chris Christie or Newt Gingrich. Positively Freudian! Each of these two men represents a different psychosis: Gingrich is Trump’s hubris and Christie his anger. And who might play proxy for the creepiness? That’s easy. Ted Cruz, come on down!
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