I was just listening to an episode of This American Life, as I am known to do when in need of a good Three Minute’s Dislike. This episode discussed the increase in incivility within New Hampshire politics – a change attributed to the current right wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party.
Now, in all fairness to the producers of TAL, the relatively vicious politics of the recent day are undeniably connected to the shift from Democratic to Republican control – a point which the program stressed. I rather doubt that they would be telling stories of political bullying if the shift had been from Republican to Democrat – but as I don’t have a horse in that race, that is neither here nor there.
What struck me was the tale told of retribution within the party ranks – the punishment meted out to those who did not act as the Speaker wished them to. There were various acts of pettiness, but the one that caught my attention took place in the election cycle: they were the targets of negative media campaigns. And, it was implied, this was the crucial factor that cost the bullying victims their political positions.
Because, of course, it obviously couldn’t be because the people of New Hampshire actually approved of the takeover tactics…
Whatever the reason for their ejection, the fact that they attributed such power to mass mailings rang a gong in my mind. It’s the sort of explanation of events – what is now fashionably referred to as a ‘narrative’ – that is increasingly common, accepted as the conventional wisdom. Supposedly, the more advertizing a political campaign carries out, the more votes it will get, all else being equal – and therefore the more money a campaign can wield, the greater its chances of victory.
No one says that it’s the only deciding factor, or even the overriding one. Candidates can still sink their campaigns with particularly stupid or unpopular actions, and some positions will never gain the favor of the electorate no matter how many commercials they’re shown. But all else being the same, the money spent will determine who wins. This seems to be a major reason why placing limits on the funding a candidate can receive is so popular – there is a perception that by purchasing advertizing, candidates can ‘buy the election’.
The obvious thought is that candidates that are more popular can raise more money – and therefore candidates which can raise lots of funds are more likely to be already likely to have a great deal of support. But the narrative suggests that contributions from outside sources are just as powerful. SuperPACs are unpopular among certain segments of the politically active because of this perception.
Is any of this actually true? I have no idea, and no good ideas on how to determine so. Merely looking at how candidates spent their money and whether they won wouldn’t be sufficient to establish a meaningful correlation, because many hotly-contested campaigns have ads purchased by special interest groups. But everyone seems to believe it to be true and accepts it without curiosity or concern.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s true: election results are often directly linked to the amount of advertizing conducted on behalf of a candidate; the more ads people are exposed to, the more support the candidate will receive.
Is anyone thinking about the implications of this?
The merits of a politician’s positions, their voting histories, the quality of their arguments, the validity of their beliefs – none of these things are particularly important. At least, not in the elections that we actually have. Perhaps those with especially irksome beliefs are screened out as not even potential politicians and thus never attract our attention. But, in the contests that we have, the candidates might as well be identical, because voters don’t make distinctions on those bases.
Careful thought and analysis of problems doesn’t matter. Careful thought and analysis of proposed solutions doesn’t matter. Or, at the very least, candidates do not differ in the degree to which they possess those qualifications.
Here’s the situation: we’re dealing with a system where either the candidates are commonly equally qualified (or unqualified), or the majority of voters do not make decisions rationally and can be trivially manipulated to support or oppose whatever the influential wish them to.
Your vote is just as powerful as that of someone who couldn’t make up their minds, undecided until the associations within the mind were set by environmental cues.
If you believe that such a system can meaningfully provide good government – no matter what your other political beliefs are, ideology or party affiliation or specific positions don’t really matter – if you think it’s even possible for good results to come out of it, you should vote.
Because it’s not, as it is often represented, a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. That only matters if both candidates are distasteful but suitable. If you believe, as I do, that no candidate offered can do the job acceptably, that even when good people manage to pass the hurdle of elections and make it into the depths of the system they can’t manage to accomplish worthwhile things…
Well, a vote is a sign of compliance and acceptance. Not to mention an investment of time and effort. Why make it? Don’t vote in the federal elections. Don’t vote in the state elections. Don’t vote, period. If nothing of value can arise from the system as it is, if even the possibility of reforming the system from within is gone, there is no benefit to be derived from participating in it.
In-between some of my local radio programs, there were promotional spaces with local celebrities urging people to vote. One such person – I believe a coach from the university football program – said that it was important to vote because politicians would govern without our consent if we did not.
I found this sentiment puzzling, and ambiguous. I presume that he meant to convey the idea that our voting could somehow determine how the politicians who made it into office would act. But his statement was just as compatible, just as expressive, of the idea that we needed to give our consent and approval to whatever it was that the politicians wished to do, that it would someone be a disaster if we didn’t grant them license to exercise the power they already possessed. And this latter concept fits the realities of politics as we know it far better than the former.