Monday, August 27, 2012

On eve of the Republican National Convention. a question... Is voting for president worth your time? Heresy here, but don't just vote on reflex. It may make just as much sense to vote on "America's Got Talent..."


That’s the mantra of newspaper editors, civics teachers, and politicians… if they think they have a majority.

To say otherwise is heresy.

A colleague who always has an eye out of good stuff to share sent me an interesting call for ideas from teachers about how to build the presidential election into their classes and particularly how to get past the “reflex cynicism” of students to voting.

The only problem is, I’m the one with reflex cynicism.

So, here is the heresy. I’m not sure it makes sense to vote for president. Vote for the school board. Vote for bond issues and on referendum questions, for councilmen and mayor, and for governor. Those votes, the “lower” they get, will have the most to do with the quality of your life. Those are important votes and to stay home from those votes is irresponsible.

But investing a lot of time and energy in following a presidential election may not be as valuable. This is coming from a guy who has written James Brown into the slot for president more than once rather than vote for one of the two major party contenders.

The irony here is uncomfortably deep. With a great friend and colleague,  I’m in the midst of teaching a course on this presidential election in real time. What’s funky is that our own reflex to cynicism is exactly what he and I spent the first day talking with students about in class. We just told them that together we're not sure any of this really matters. We raised our own doubts.

I mean, think about it. We've been at war now through two presidencies, two election cycles. If you go back to Bush I, we've had four elections cycles and we were at war in three of the four. That's what? 24 years? And the polls don't show overwhelming support among the electorate for all that warfare. It’s apparent the forces that compel us to war have little to do with who is president. I seem to remember Lyndon Johnson handing off the war in Vietnam flawlessly to Richard Nixon. Perhaps Ike was onto something.

In class that first day we focused on an important understanding in political science. The American system is designed not for radical change, or even steady change, but for incremental change at best and maintenance of the status-quo at worst. Presidential elections don't really change much. They tend to put on a great show, but when they're over, it's really "meet the new boss same as the old boss..." except for elections in a few really dramatic times.

This is complicated by what Theodore Lowi described three decades ago as "The End of Liberalism." Part of his argument was that Congress discovered how to be reelected without voting on policy or taking much more than symbolic stands on issues. They figured out the mechanisms of constituent service and public relations. Ask this... When was the last great outpouring of legislation from the American congress? The Great Society of the 1960s. Theory suggested we could expect another great legislative upheaval around 1984, then again around 2000, because major legislative upheaval had historically occurred in roughly 16-year increments.  That’s how long it took the pot to boil and the lid to finally explode. Now, we seem to be locked into a stalemate that may have little to do with party allegiance or boiling pots.

In fact, parties seem to have little to do with elections or governing and may have outlived their usefulness in their current form, anyway. They're more public relations shells than functioning units. They don't raise the money and they don't deliver voters. Candidates do those things. That is way different from parties doing them. When parties held those functions, they could bully winners into doing what the party needed done to support its base. Parties, and their ideologies meant something.

But, on the other hand, my colleague points out that party platforms are actually the best way to predict what winners will do in office. Something on the nature of 90 % of party planks receive action after the election, most becoming law or policy. Yet, how much do voters know about party platforms? Even less now that conventions are scripted and all the platform work is accomplished in obscurity before it happens. This is exacerbated by the diminution of convention coverage to just a few MTV hours.

My wife tells me “America’s Got Talent” won’t even be pre-empted for the Republican National Convention Tuesday. Which is fitting because “America’s Got Talent” will be vastly more suspenseful than the Republican National Convention.

What that means, I'm afraid, is this: All that passes for a presidential election contest will be decent theater and great exercise in the arts of public relations, and make civics teachers and newspaper editors happy beyond words, but have very little to do with a consequential vote on the issues that many will live and die on after the balloons have been set loose on the convention floor this week or in the victorious hotel ballroom Nov. 6.

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