Election Day used to be one of my favorite days of the year. Yes, I was a political nerd to the highest degree. That’s when I did politics for a living and lived and breathed it. I’ve been known to say that politics is my first language.
But then life changed. Or rather I changed. Or maybe I was changed. I came to dread Election Day. That was probably because most of the people I voted for never had a chance to win. That’s what happens when you write in names.
And now? I don’t know. Election Day is a day. I still pay attention to the results, because I’m curious. Election evening finds me in front of my computer with multiple websites pulled up. I flip between then all checking for the latest numbers and updates, what the spin happens to be, and more. I look at election data – how precincts vote, what the turn out was, how different candidates fare compared to how other candidates are doing in their races to see if there are trends present and what that might mean to the bigger picture. Ok, so I’m still a political nerd at heart.
I watched the election results in other states too. I was curious to see how the governor’s race in Kentucky, the state House of Delegates in Virginia, and the abortion constitutional amendment in Ohio would turn out. Some of the other races that the news highlighted felt like pulling at straws to be newsworthy.
So much of these races end up having confusing long term results. Kentucky is primarily Republican states with many Republican elected officials, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader. But the Governor is a Democrat and he defeated a McConnell endorsed candidate who is said to be McConnell’s protege. Which means that the same people who vote for McConnell voted against McConnell in a different race.
In Ohio, another primarily Republican state which has been come a solidly reliable Republican state for presidential races, voters overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the state constitution which would ensure the right to abortion. So that means that the same people who vote for elected officials who have publicly stated their opposition to abortion and vote in favor of abortion restrictions, voted in opposition to those same elected officials in supporting the amendment. And I would bet anyone money that those same people will return to voting for those same elected officials next year again.
So what does this all mean?
Great question. And if we are honest, the answer is we don’t really know. Here’s what I do know – I think we make a huge mistake about so much when it comes to voters and voting. We are looking for signals for the next election. While that’s nice, I don’t buy it. We’re looking to see some kind of rationalizations about issues and public figures. Again, big mistake. I don’t buy into the notion that most people who go to vote are thinking rationally about how they are voting. If they did, then why are attack ads and messages of fear so very prevalent? If you ask people why they vote for a particular candidate, you’ll get an array of answers. Sometimes you’ll get statements about issues, but the reality is most people don’t really understand the issues with a great depth of understanding. They hear something, can relate to what is being said and they think they know about it. They know just enough to be dangerous. Take a look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going on. Lots of people are commenting on it as if they really understand what is going on and the reasons for the conflict. Sorry to break it to you, but they don’t. It’s extremely complex, there is along history, and we’re dealing with a different culture with different norms that is also butted against another different culture. But we seem so intent on picking sides and staking a claim so we can be right, that we lose sight of so much, and really can’t even see a fraction of the whole picture.
Back to the main point – voters for the most part don’t vote with rationality in mind. They vote for someone they would like to hang out with at a bar or party or a picnic. They vote for someone because they are the first name listed on the ballot (yes, this actually happens. It’s been proven that ballot position matters). They vote for someone because of the person’s name. They vote for someone because a candidate is related to someone else who served in office (as if the relative somehow transferred their personality or knowledge or leadership to a relative). They vote for someone because of the party registration without thinking about who they are actually voting for (in some places you can just check the box for the political party you want to support without having to spend time looking at each race). They vote for someone because of the message of fear about the other candidate. They vote for someone because that candidate offers something intangible to defend the voter’s identity. They vote for someone because a candidate knocked on their door and they shook their hand after talking to them for a minute.
Having said all of that, there are some voters who tap into rationality in their voting too. I just want to say out loud that it’s not as many as we all tell ourselves. We over estimate these things. We think so many people have spent hours, days, weeks, months, paying attention to the campaigns, listening to the speeches and debates, reading about the issues and the stances of the candidates. We want to have this view of the voter that they are somehow wise and have the best interest of the nation at heart. Again, that may be true for some of the voters – I’m sure it is. But I’m not willing to say that is the majority. It’s not.
Here’s the real question – is what I have portrayed a bad thing? Or is it just reality? It is a bad thing?
I don’t know. I do know that we should stop kidding ourselves about the voters. Voters are just people. They are living their lives the best they can. Their days are full of dealing with a whole array of things. They are exhausted by the end of the day. Why do we think that these same people have the energy to somehow become political scientists and experts in every issue under that sun. That’s an unreasonable expectation.
People generally don’t know much about many things. They know a great deal about a handful of things. We just don’t have the capacity to know a huge amount about a range of issues. It would be overwhelming. I know theology. I know how political systems work. In fact, the two are very related to each other in many ways. I have a decent amount of understanding about philosophy. But there’s a million things that I don’t understand, nor do I care to understand. I’m not gifted in working with my hands. I don’t hunt or fish. I don’t know how to do repairs on my car or on many things around the house. Nor do I care to learn these things in depth. And being in a community means I don’t have to. There are other people who are gifted in these things, who know them in depth. They are people I can turn to when something needs to be done related to them. And that’s a good thing.
For as much as we like to claim the value of individualism in this country, taking it to its conclusion would be an absolute disaster for all of us. It would mean that we all do our own thing every time. That’s not how a society functions. We need each other. We need some folks who know what they are doing and what they are talking about so that we don’t have to think those things.
All of this is based on trust. If we are going to be in a society, then we have to trust one another. We have to trust people to know more than we do about a whole variety of things. We have to trust each other. We have to trust our own limitations as well.
Democracy is a terrible form of politics. It’s just happens to be better than all the other terrible forms of politics. Or something like that – Someone famous once said something like that who I can’t think of right now. I’m just going to trust that is true.