Sunday, October 10, 2004

Random Walks Through Purple States

Ever since I decided to attend a phone banking party to call swing voters on behalf of John Kerry, I have been bothered by a simple question:

Why is the 2004 Presidential election so important?

Its not the right question to ask these days, lest you intend to draw the ire of partisans on either side, who believe, purely and without any further rumination, that this election is the most important one of our lifetimes. In fact, my friends and family, recognizing my passion and probably sharing some of it, have never even broached the subject with me. And on behalf of the politics junkies at VOR, I can safely report that our own moods seem to dovetail with the polls, as we have lived and breathed this election for the last six months.

But people like us aren’t important in the grand scheme of things. Yes, we are the ones who put up the yard signs, populate the phone banks, and lobby our politically apathetic friends and relations. We write political weblogs. But, in the global sense, all of our effort is really about our own consumption value and trying in vain to convince people in the distant purple regions of the country that they should really think hard about who they vote for. You know how to talk to these “swing voters.” Think about the Supreme Court. Think about the environment. Think about America’s role in the world. For crying out loud, don’t just vote for the guy you want to have a beer with. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, we political aficionados would prefer you voted for the guy you’d want to be your designated driver instead. All we want out of these disobliging swing voters is for them to defy their own character, and make a decision. And that process requires an honest appraisal of their own core values, a desire to collect information to inform their viewpoint, and finally a choice about who they are and what they believe. In short, we want swing voters to be more like us. Ideological and decisive. Informed and thoughtful. Not easily swayed by cheap political rhetoric and exogenous events. We want swing voters to stop swinging and commit.

Don’t get me wrong. Maybe there are people still agonizing over their vote. Perhaps, they have visited the candidates’ websites for further information on their health care plans, and shockingly, have come away even more uncommitted than before. They like Bush’s stance on abortion, but might vote for Kerry if he could stop jobs from being outsourced to India. They want the candidates to offer simple solutions to their complicated problems. The tortured nuance of Kerry hasn’t won them over, but neither have they been impressed by the plain and unsophisticated language of the President. What more do they want?

Yet it is these citizens who are lavished with attention from politicians and pollsters, analyzed incessantly by commentators and partisans, and most importantly, the very people who will decide our next President. Think for a second of the insanity of it all. Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that we are putting the future of our nation in the most fickle of hands, the least informed individuals who are the most likely to forget to vote anyway, unless we call them 26 times the day before the election. We spend all of our collective time, analyzing our chosen candidate’s message, not for introspective analysis of why he inspires us, but rather for indications of whether he can motivate people who are by definition unmotivated to learn more about the issues.

My statistically minded friends will no doubt refer us to median voter theories and the like, showing us how rational it is for our politicians to pander to swing voters, and how irrational it is for me to have such strong views. Or we might be reminded by others that uninformed voters impose significant externalities on the rest of us. There have been many times in American history where the median voter was wrong. (See: Slavery) Finally, we could even compare our winner take all democracy to the alternative models around the world, and wonder if they feel as frustrated as we do.

So, in a cynical mood, you can think of all the time, mental, and physical energy, and water cooler conversations (or weblog entries) you have devoted to thinking about this election. And then realize, that your fate and mine, will be decided by someone in Parma, Ohio, who steps into the voting booth with no information, the vaguest ideas of the candidates’ positions, and likely more influenced by yesterday’s headlines than any empirical truths or substance. They will cast a vote for Bush or Kerry (or maybe Nader if they really are crazy) and the rest of us will have to live with their decision for the next four years. And what do they get for their careless disregard of their civic duty and their defiant resistance to learning anything substantial about the issues? We’ll all just court them again in 2008.

If you want to get your head around the situation, you can think of a coin being tossed on election day, somewhere in Pennsylvania if you like, with heads or tails indicating how the determinative swing voter feels on that particular day, emotions that could be attributed to the weather outside or whether he has had his coffee. And that coin toss will mean more than anything any of us have done during this entire election season combined.

But don’t feel sorry for yourself, or me. Like the sad souls “who love too much,” we care too much about the future of our nation and the world. And this pathology leads us to read multiple news sources, analyze polling data from the Fourth precinct in Florida, and waste time at work reading blogs. And we enjoy the triumph and torment of seeing our candidate win or lose, watching the nation move closer or further away from the direction we would choose. I could recommend a boycott of swing voters out of spite, but being admittedly politically practical and demonstrably personally impractical, I will instead watch the election results come in on November 2nd, surrounded by my equally passionate friends and colleagues, wondering what a single mother in Florida had for breakfast and whether it rained in Milwaukee. Democracy is strange and frustrating to me, but I haven’t found anything else I enjoy more.



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