I hate many things, but there's nothing I hate quite as much as the American voter. Election season, currently flaring up like the recurring case of gout that it is, reminds me of this depressing fact.
I'm know I'm not alone in hating American politics. Everyone does. But people -- mistakenly, in my view -- lay blame for its miserable state at the feet of some personal bugaboo: corporations, unions, intellectuals, the candidates themselves. This, friends, is scapegoating. The problem is us.
Look at it from the candidate's point of view. If you want to win an election in the United States of America, it doesn't do to waste much time aiming your pitch at the electorate's brains. Two candidates could, conceivably, get up there on the stump and give an honest and precise list of their policy priorities. They could offer their reasons for championing the positions they champion, and they could share with voters their strategy for achieving the things they wish to achieve in the office they are seeking. The voters would then have benchmarks by which to judge candidates -- what do they wish to achieve, and how likely are they to achieve it? Such a debate would look something like the ideal of democratic government that we still delude sixth graders with.
Nothing of the sort ever happens, of course, and the reason is that no one cares. No one cares! If you want to win an election, you have to aim at the bowels, not the head. The winning candidate is the candidate who packages together the best, most exciting narrative. It's not unlike the making of big-budget blockbuster films. You need heroes and villains. You need simple variations on shopworn themes. You need action, fear, pathos, vengeance, romance. Every moment you spend on policy wonk Poindextery detracts from the actual business of winning elections. From the actual business of winning votes. And voters don't vote with their forebrains; they vote based on some scrambled narrative of good and evil that has been subtly implanted in their baser ganglia by people who are skilled at such things. Because we are kind of dense.
It's easy to find examples, so long as we look outside ourselves. We point and laugh and places like Texas or Alabama, where the corniest blowhards win elections by puffing themselves up like blowfish and carrying on like carny barkers inflamed with the spirit of Jesus. What's much harder to see, due to lack of perspective, is how we ourselves are not all that different.
Take, in Humboldt County, the perennial issue that every candidate, regardless of their party or the office they are seeking, must pledge allegiance to: jobs. Every candidate for office vows to bring jobs to Humboldt County first and foremost, and by any means necessary. But how many of them have published white papers detailing how they plan to go about this? Umm, not so many.
Because if they are not completely clueless themselves, they know that such pledges are 95 percent pose. There are thousands of economic forces that have more power to influence the local economy than a city councilmember or county supervisor -- the issue is completely, or almost completely, out of their hands. The best they can possibly hope for is to nudge things a very little bit. Yet as candidates they all promise so much more than they can deliver, simply because the voters let themselves get all hopped up by such promises. It works.
This is where it stands, here and everywhere else in this nation, as far as I can tell. Politics is completely disconnected from government. Rather than choose someone based on their ability to carry out the designated duties of an elected office in a representative democracy, we elect people to salve some sort of existential wound -- to vanquish enemies, to slay the dragon. Sometimes we do elect a capable person who wants nothing more than to do the job to which he has been appointed, but it's almost as if that happens by accident. Such a person, I believe, is at a severe disadvantage right out of the gate.
Can we recover from this? Is there a way to make people care about real issues, rather than the phantasmagoric ones we demand from our candidates? I'm skeptical, but we're going to give it a shot. The Journal publishes an omnibus issue on the Eureka races next week. Well-wishers may send acetaminophen.