Thursday, October 14, 2004

 

The presidential campaign myth

Our presidential selection system is designed to mislead us: Why are we so clueless?

[Part I of IV]

Well, I can't think of much to say about the third debate – it's all about the mind of the undecided voter, which I admit mystifies me. Check out the neat riff in Althouse on Bob Shieffer's idiotic final question in the debate about the "strong women" in the candidates' lives.

I'd like now to embark on something that is undoubtedly a no-no in the blogosphere: a four part series. Why is our presidential selection system is designed to mislead us? I'll tell you the punchline right off: we are simply way too focused on the candidates as individuals and on what they say during the campaign, and not nearly focused enough on the administration and the package of policies that they will bring in with them on election. Our system turns the candidates into spokesmodels while we tell ourselves we are picking someone to personally "lead the free world."

In three succeeding posts, I will focus on a different one of the three segments of the American electorate: the know-nothings; the partisans; and the intellects.

The know-nothings. Typified by the undecided voter, know-nothings tend to follow politics for only about two months out of every four years – yes, between Labor and Election days in presidential years. They tend to be shallow thinkers who try to sound smart by cynically dismissing the two political parties as pretty much the same, to justify their inattention to public affairs by pretending that "it doesn't matter, it's just politics," and to cover up their failure to inform themselves by blaming the politicians' supposed failures to state their positions clearly. This year's typical know-nothing is likely to say, "I don't like what Bush is doing, but Kerry just hasn't given me a good enough reason to vote for him." The know nothings probably have some awareness that by refusing to commit themselves, they garner lots of attention by everyone who wants to persuade them.

The partisans. This group (and I include myself in it) tends to have relatively firm political commitments. We are the party loyalists, who make up our minds fairly early in the race and don't change. We may be well-informed critical thinkers, or ignoramuses, but either way, we fit new information into our existing belief systems. The only difference is that critical thinkers create arguments to discount discordant and disagreeable facts, whereas ignoramuses simply say "nuh uh" to disagreeable facts. People in this group are happy to tell you why they are voting for Bush or Kerry, and may be more or less well-reasoned and persuasive in doing so, but will almost always focus on liking or disliking one of the candidates or agreeing or disagreeing with what the candidate says.

The intellects. This is the smallest group, though its numbers are swelled by know-nothings and partisans who are merely pretending. Intellects – who may be individuals or institutions -- are more concerned to guide "the policy debate" during the election campaign than to come out for or against a candidate. They hope to influence the candidates' messages and positions by demanding answers to certain questions and leading voter opinion by means of a kind of socratic dialogue with the candidates. The intellects are well-informed versions of the know-nothings, in that their currency is "withholding judgment." They tell us whom they support only at the last minute – or, if they hope to maintain insider influence regardless of who wins, they never tell us. Bill O'Reilly who recently said on The Daily Show that he hasn't made up his mind about whom he supports for president, and who therefore takes us all to be idiots since we all know he hates Kerry and basically supports Bush, is an archetypal partisan posing as an intellect. The non-partisan media, which is now badgering the candidates for clarity but which will endorse a candidate only in the last week before the election if at all, is an institutional intellect.

In my next few posts, I will show you how the know-nothings, partisans and intellects, all share the same fundamental misconception of what presidential elections are about.

Next installment: The know nothings -- undecided ninnies and third-party poopers



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