1/02/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent column about John Edwards' role in the race and what an Edwards nomination would represent. Rothenberg identified Edwards as the candidate who represented Democrats' frustration, especially regarding their view of the economy and the corporate world. After all, Edwards is the candidate who has made "fighting big drug companies" (and big insurance companies and big oil companies and big energy companies) the centerpiece of his campaign.

But while these voters may want a president who can take these interests on, Rothenberg astutely wonders if Edwards can really deliver on the "big changes" he promises on the campaign trail:

"While Clinton and Obama both acknowledge only thing worse than a nonvoter is an uneducated voter. Regardless of your polthe importance of working with various interests, including Capitol Hill Republicans and the business community, to come up with solutions to key problems, Edwards sounds more and more like the neighborhood bully who plans to dictate what is to be done...

...For months, observers have noted that Americans are tired of the polarization and gridlock that has defined Washington, D.C. at least since 1994 (except for a brief period following September 11th). But if Iowa Democrats choose Edwards, they are choosing anger, confrontation and class warfare. In a sense, they are displaying buyer’s remorse (from 2004) and choosing a more attractive, charismatic Howard Dean-like candidate this time."
I highly recommend reading all of Rothenberg's excellent column (here's the link again) not just because of his brilliant assessment of Edwards, but also because of how it relates to this particular post.

This evening I had a discussion with my aunt and uncle about the presidential race. They asked me what I thought about Obama. After giving them a thorough assessment of the pros and cons of his candidacy, I turned the question back to them and asked them what they thought about the race and was taken aback by what I learned:

1. They did not know who Mitt Romney was.
2. They did not know if John Edwards was a Republican or a Democrat.
3. They liked Obama because he married a down to earth woman.
4. They had never heard of Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, or Chris Dodd.
5. They didn't know that John McCain was still running.
6. They didn't know that Hillary Clinton was such a polarizing figure.
7. The only thing they know about Mike Huckabee is that he's a Christian.

I guess it's safe to say they are in Obama's camp even though this affinity seems to be based on reasons that have nothing to do with his actual politics.

Now, my aunt and uncle follow the news fairly regularly. (At least they know "an election" is coming up soon.) But their relative ignorance about the people who are running to be the nation's next president stunned me. And that's what made me think about the main point of this post: Voters are often irrational, and sometimes the mere image a politician projects can trump any of their policy positions and campaign promises. Would my aunt and uncle really vote for Obama simply because his wife is not an elitist? Do they not care about his views on Iraq, health care, the environment, or tax policy? Does his relative lack of government experience not mean anything to them?

In the case of John Edwards, for example, he has been saturating the airwaves for the past few weeks, but apparently my aunt and uncle can't identify which political party he's a part of. How many millions of voters out there are carbon copies of my aunt and uncle? What is the risk that such uneducated and undereducated voters pose to our democracy? This is not to say that the average citizen should be as discerning as Stuart Rothenberg when considering the ramifications of their votes, but one would think that people take this process a bit more seriously and learn at least the most basic facts about their presidential candidates. (Click here for a lighthearted column about the nature of undecided voters written by Counterpunch's Ben Tripp during the 2004 election campaign.)

Here are a few questions unengaged and superficial voters might consider asking themselves:

If John Edwards wins the presidency, what will happen if he frightens the very companies he's fighting against so much that these companies' workers and stock prices suffer, thus making these workers' plights even worse?

If Mike Huckabee wins the presidency, what will the national ramifications of a federal ban on all abortions be? And how would you prosecute those who provide or receive abortion services after such a ban is enacted?

If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, what will the role of her vice president be? Will the vice president really be the assistant vice president because of Bill Clinton? And who would the real president be? Bill or Hillary?

If Rudy Giuliani wins the presidency, how will he know how to respond in the event of another terrorist attack on the homeland given that he has no military or foreign policy experience?

If Barack Obama wins the presidency, given his lack of experience, how can we be sure that he is relying on the right advisors to guide him through difficult foreign and domestic policy decisions? That's what the current president is doing and has done with Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer, and Dick Cheney.

If John McCain wins the presidency, how can the government function if he vetoes every bill that has pork projects attached to it as he said he would do on the campaign trail? And what if cutting pork doesn't save the government enough money to avoid having to raise taxes?

Tying in with this theme, the New York Times and Newsweek both published recent articles about the presidential candidates' efforts to woo Iowa's remaining undecided voters. However, why are so many voters still undecided at this late stage of the game? After almost an entire year of campaigning, what more is there to learn about these candidates? Have these voters been paying attention at all? If all the candidates' town halls, pep rallies, debates, and campaign ads haven't swayed these voters by now, then what will?

Now I think of my aunt and uncle again. If it really does all come down to the way a candidate makes a voter feel and if these kinds of voters show up in great numbers, then it's virtually impossible to predict how the Iowa caucuses will turn out, especially given how tight the polls are. It seems that we have casual voters like my aunt and uncle on one end of the continuum and policy wonks like Stuart Rothenberg on the other.

The most disturbing thing about this is the fact that everyone's vote has the same power. After all, the only thing worse than a nonvoter is an uneducated voter. Exercising our civic responsibilities is an important part of being an American. Regardless of your political leanings, I encourage everyone to learn a bit about the people who want to lead this great nation and make informed decisions when you step into that voting booth.

Please choose wisely. Vote intelligently.

5 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

So who are you voting for?

Tanny J said...

I understand your frustration, Anthony. I know plenty of people who will vote for Hillary simply because she's a woman. Or will vote for Obama simply because he's of black descent. Or will vote for a candidate because of just one polarizing issue.

Still, don't forget the educated voter who's still undecided because he/she doesn't like any of their options and is debating on the lesser of evils.

That would be me if I was in one of the earlier states. But since I live in one of the later states, the decision will have been already made for me. Which means I'll probably vote for Kucinich again come March. :)

Schenck said...

Palmer, I share your fears of the evenly-weighted "ignorant vote." I was in New York for Christmas and my (step-) aunts and uncle all support Hillary because (1) they know who she is, and (2) it makes their (conservative) mother angry. Fortunately, they have never voted, and they will not vote this time around either. I'd like to think that those who have been following the race closely, or at least closely enough to be making an educated decision, will turn out in higher numbers for their chosen candidates. You know what would be funny? and discriminatory? an election pre-test, where you had to answer a few easy questions about the candidates for your vote to count. HA that would never happen.

Nikki said...

Hey this is one of my favorite post so far. My husband thinks that people should have to take a test before voting, along the same lines as what Schenk mentioned. The only thing I would add would be wouldn't a lot of people question my intellect knowing I voted for George Bush twice and of course I support him still......would I be considered an educated informed voter?

Anthony Palmer said...

Nikki,

When I say "educated voter," I mean a voter who at least has some basic knowledge about how our democracy functions. What are the three branches of government? How many Supreme Court justices are there? How large is the Senate? How long do congressional representatives serve? Who were the last two presidents?

It doesn't matter if you are a Republican, Democrat, Bush lover, Clinton lover, or a fan of Mike Gravel. As long as you at least understand how your vote fits into the grand scheme of things, your political leanings shouldn't matter. Being educated is different from being partisan.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.