A Contrarian View - Why Should I Vote?

October 16, 2008

Anticipation (typical unrelated opening paragraph)

Anticipation is a bitch. I’m two weeks away from starting one helluva task. My days are filled with a haze of energy at work. My evenings are filled with social commitments and slowly increasing free time to sit in my newly finished study - my haven - surrounded by mellow music and belt out the occasional rational thought. Both are currently frequented by stomach churning of increasing amplitude as I try to keep my nerves in check. I don’t know what I’m made of yet, I’ve made it a point to avoid the limits, to always retain an excuse in case of failure. This time the excuses are getting checked. The limits don’t exist. In two weeks, it’s make or break time. I’ll either reach 50,000 words or I won’t. I’m not expecting a masterpiece. I want to follow the NaNoWriMo philosophy - I want to stop reaching for the thesaurus every 5 seconds, the excuse machine (Internet) every 2 seconds, and prove that I’ve got enough mettle to suffer through the highs and lows and actually produce something that could, after countless hours of frustration spent fixing it, become a lucid and interesting story. God it scares me. This whole little rant being only 2400 words and 2.5 hours of work, it scares me even more (The NaNoWriMo 50K count breaks down to 1667 a day). Still, in the middle of cold sweats, nervous tics, excitement, character traits, and scene outlines, I’ve had some thoughts moldering that I wanted to get out before they’re too stale to resurrect.

I’m not voting

There. I said it. I’m not voting. Before you get all up in arms about how my vote counts and how it’s my chance to be a cog in the great wheel of democracy [1], allow me a few words to explain, because this is at least a conscious, reasonably well informed decision.

First, let’s do this by the numbers. The electoral votes for Maryland, where I live, have a 100% chance of going for Obama. 100%! At least Pennsylvania has 1% for McCain. So even if I were to want to vote for McCain, my vote has literally no visibility in the election whatsoever. You’re welcome to suggest that the Bradley Effect is possible in certain situations, and I can’t dispute the possibility. It’s easy to look at state voting populations and assume that polling simply reads general trends. But the math behind using small sample set polling, done properly, is overwhelming. Confidence ratings on sampling are high.

So I have no real say in the electoral selections for my state. One could argue on numbers alone that a vote is far more important in a swing state like Virginia or Florida. There are places where the electoral votes have a real possibility of going to either major candidate.

I still wouldn’t vote. On purpose. I believe there’s a drastic difference between an uninformed vote and an informed vote. I think a majority of the votes in this election will be uninformed. My no-vote is a vote of no-confidence, not in the candidates necessarily, but in the political system as it stands presently.

There are two types of uninformed votes: the “party line” votes and the undecided coin-flip votes.

I’ve tried over the last few weeks to have a few discussions on politics. I’ve witnessed a few as well. It is absolutely baffling to me how a process so supposedly central to our country’s workings can have such a polarizing effect on almost everyone. But the worst part seems to be that the more polarized you appear, the more uninformed you actually are. It seems as if everyone’s opinion is simply regurgitated and flavored by whatever particular media brands that person relies on. And the media being such an unbiased and civil institution, passes on only the unblemished truth of every situation.

I don’t think a vote can possibly be informed if a person honestly believes they can be pigeonholed into one of two political parties. The parties no longer appear to represent issues. Rather they represent stakes of power in governing bodies. These can be bought and sold by lobbies, unions, or other groups. When I listen to party officials on either side debate, there seems to be no rational thought beyond a plea to sway the balance of power. As soon as I hear accusations and blame (or hosannahs) being cast on the shoulders of either party so generously as exist in the media today, I immediately resign myself to missing any rational discussion on an issue. (The best places I’ve found for some accountability of this sort of powermongering are CSPAN - see the debates on the floor, or the votes cast - or sites like FactCheck.) The party line vote is simply fishing for power in people-turned-lemmings.

Undecided votes can also be uninformed. Certainly, everyone has a right to take their time forming an opinion and selecting the best candidate. But let’s say you get into the voting booth and you still just don’t know who would be better. So you flip a coin and vote. What has your vote just done? Has it really counted? Does it really mean anything? I don’t think this could qualify as “Rocking the Vote”, despite what MTV might advertise.

I would argue that a citizen with a relatively equal comparison of the candidates would do no harm in not voting, and would possibly do some good. This is the situation I’m in. I certainly see some differences between Obama and McCain. There are positives (Obama - deep thinker, smart; McCain - experience and national defense understanding) and negatives (Obama - abortion; McCain - same lack of perspective or adaptability in thinking as W.). When I look at the actual effects each candidate would have on my life and the direction of the country the way I prioritize it, I see only very small differences.

Taxes can serve as an example issue. The subject is generally polarizing. Those party-line folks on both sides will proselytize through the media that only they have the golden ticket. They’ll swear up and down in 15 second sound bytes that one or the other candidate will do good on some blanket statement. On both sides, they’re idiots. If I look at the actual tax difference I would see, the change is within one percent. Taxes, from a short term policy perspective, suddenly becomes much less of an issue as a voter.

Two levels of abstraction

I do think my no-vote, meagerly informed as it is, says something. The polarization of high profile presidential elections by the media and political parties has, in my mind, eradicated a rational debate on the governing of the country. The grab for power devalues the foresight of politicians by ensuring that whatever happens within the next five minutes will settle the correctness of a position. I would love to see stances on energy, foreign relations, technology, science, education, and taxes that look at the next century instead of the next ten years. Sometimes it takes a long time. I want to see debates that consider entirely new means of satisfying problems, rather than simply playing with the same sliders on the same graphs. Sometimes it takes paradigm shifts.

I’ll use my position on two topics to illustrate my point:

Taxes in this country are completely ridiculous. They’re overcomplicated, often preposterous, poorly weighted, poorly regulated by the IRS, and poorly serviced. In the meantime, we have a ratio of GDP to national debt that is skyrocketing. Considering the size of our government, our ridiculous budget deficits, and our many-zeroed debt, it seems prudent to ensure government income based on taxes. It’s entirely possible that the right answer in the short term is to raise taxes (where the short term is on the order of a decade).

But in the long run, I’m a huge proponent of a drastic overhaul of the entire system. Galbraith said, ”It is a well known and very important fact that America’s founding fathers did not like taxation without representation. It is a lesser known and equally important fact that they did not much like taxation with representation.” As a nation, we’ve lost sight of the intentions of our founders. We’ve forgotten that the income tax was only instated in 1913. In the long run, the current tax system ought to be an outlying data point, not an acceptable trendline.

Education in this country suffers from difficult problems as well. High costs and poor performances, especially in cities, keep everyone on edge and expecting far better results. Some general changes to the current system are most certainly required. Teachers need better pay, scholarships for gifted students must be available, and an acceptable standard for all students must be reached. But these answers won’t fix our long term problems.

Education needs a much longer, generational perspective too. It’s hugely important to remember that the education system we’ve inherited was created for the needs of mildly educated skilled blue and white collar labor to fuel the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. As our entire global economy shifts more and more to a knowledge based economy, the same system will crumble. As more kids go to college, the meaning of a degree becomes worthless. As more kids try to adapt to some average standard, the creativity and inventiveness that actually drives human achievement is literally learned out of kids. [2]

Our nation’s political commentary desperately needs to overcome its shortsightedness.

Honest Abe

Of course, the shortsightedness itself is a long term problem too. We won’t get there too quickly, but the Internet and other new forms of communication that remove the traditional media from power are taking the biggest steps right now. TV changed the way we deal with elections, and it’s only just now starting to change again.

This November marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Texas. He will still have a profound effect on the outcome of this election. JFK and his memory as a young, elegant president who had his position snatched away has been memorialized in Americana. The idea of the face of America, as that’s what the President has been since World War II, being eradicated affects us all, and rightly so. America has had a fixation with the image of that type of President since the assassination. Obama seems to fit the same mold in many ways, and he’s the first real chance America has for the same type of presidential image.

The democratic presidential nomination is a position Obama should have no business holding [3]. He never should have beaten Hillary. The legacy she holds with the American populace after her husband’s popularity and scandal combined with the media darling image she’s cultivated since leaving the White House should have made her a shoe-in for the grab. But she didn’t get it. Why not?

One of the most frequent thoughts that passes through my head while watching major sporting events is why enormous companies like FedEx, Nike, and Visa advertise so much. I understand this seems tangential; bear with me, I’m getting there. We assume that since big companies are clearly profitable we would use them no matter what. But if Nike didn’t advertise, and Puma suddenly came out with a glorious, fabulous campaign slogan - a catchy song and something like ”My better is better than your better” for example - well, a lot of high school kids would be wearing Puma instead of Nike.

Obama has an amazing campaign engine generating that sort of symbol. Hillary never did and neither does McCain. In fact, no political campaign has ever done what Obama is doing so successfully now. He’s driving a new type of political branding the same way that Jordan drove branding for athletes in the 80s. He’s leveraged his charisma through his TV appearances, and he’s even using the new communications by mass texting potential voters during primaries. It would be foolish to suggest those strategies are anything but brilliant.

The Kennedy Fixation is at its height right now. The whole country, from both political parties, demands change. Change is far easier to see in a young idealist thinker like Obama than in an old, stodgy, experienced veteran like McCain, no matter how smart he may be. And like Paul Graham can tell you far more eloquently than I can: it’s charisma stupid.

Charisma has changed the game. The Presidential seat is different since World War II. Certainly Kennedy contributed to that change, but so did Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton in various ways. I wonder just how often we get the “best” candidate when so much of the race is guided by charisma and projection.

It’s interesting to consider how some past presidents might have fared today. Would Thomas Jefferson, a rather intellectual and introspective fellow, ever have achieved that office? Almost certainly he was the smartest president we’ve ever had, and he’s left the most indelible mark in our country through his gifts of eloquence.

He never would be elected today.

What about George Washington, our first hallowed president? President Washington took office only reluctantly, and held a second term even more reluctantly. He led the country in its delicate infancy, and blazed the way for later successes. In his farewell address, he warned of the power of political parties and how it might ruin the democratic process. His advice seems apropos today.

He never would be elected today.

What about Abe Lincoln? A remarkably somber character with occasional bouts of depression, sometimes bordering on suicidal. President Lincoln was a solid lawyer with then polarizing views on the issue of slavery.

He never would be elected today.

It’s interesting that all of the attention and media hype lends itself towards reflection of the presidential candidates as people, as the “face of America” rather than the issues they champion. It gets downright scary when you consider that the paragons of the office we aspire to duplicate would never themselves be elected.

The culture of the TV sound byte has changed the entire physiognomy of our political process (tell me, do you really want a president that’s just an “ordinary American” like you? I want somebody quite extraordinary). Since my vote counts so desperately, and I see two major candidates that herald no particular movements away from the political status quo, I will consider my no-vote a vote of no confidence. I love my country. It has the best backbone of governing philosophy ever wrought by mankind. I want the political system to get out of the way of our country’s greatness, so that it can go about the business of being great. I hope more people start demanding a change, not just in office, but to the entire two party political system that seems, in retrospect, so far in civility, justice, honor, and freedom from what our forefathers hoped to achieve.

[1] “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” - Churchill

[2] “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” - Tom Robbins

[3] Please note too that any discussions of the candidates are for purposes of explaining my point of view, not for endorsement or condemnation.

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