Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 May 2018

Training New Voters


[Click here for an earlier, more general post on the same subject, entitled “Voting Made Easy.” For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

As we survey the train wreck that our American democracy has become, it’s easy to lose both heart and perspective. It’s easy to blame it all on the cleverest demagogue in our national history and/or on Hillary Clinton’s defects in character and responsibility. But in fact we have suffered an appallingly steady political degradation for at least two generations.

The downward progression of new presidents’ prior experience in actual political office is, by itself, appalling. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, then had the least prior experience in our history: eight years as governor of California. A generation later, Dubya (elected in 2000) had only six, as governor of Texas. Now we have a president with absolutely no prior experience in elected office at all.

What Fortune-500 board would elect a chairman with that little experience? What school board would appoint a principal with no teaching experience?

The cause of this decline is manifest: our two parties’ transition from real conventions to direct primaries. In the old days, grizzled party elders picked the candidates, or at least a short list for party delegates’ selection. Today, ordinary voters pick the candidates based on thirty-second TV ads and, more recently, 250-word Facebook “clickbait” and newly “expanded” Tweets of 280 characters.

Is it any wonder that non-presidential “social” issues like abortion, guns, religion and attitudes toward ethnic, racial and sexual minorities now dictate who governs us? Is it any wonder that a nation that focuses incessantly on inconsistent and hasty Tweets, after sixteen months of three-branch rule by the GOP has: no infrastructure fix, no trade fix, a lousier health-insurance system than before, a huge tax giveaway to the very rich and to corporations (neither of which needed it), a new nuclear-armed adversary (North Korea), an old one (Iran) less restrained, the bloody, rubble-strewn chaos of Syria spreading to Yemen, our allies disappointed in us and in disarray, and tyrants and strongmen emboldened all over the world? Do serious political problems—as economists once believed free markets do—really fix themselves, allowing us to inform and govern all 320 million of us by Tweet?

Two generations of deliberately amplifying noise over signal have confused and deluded our adult voters for too long. They are lost in clickbait and therefore lost to rational voting. The massive confusion sowed by all the noise is a major reason why so few voters (30%, typically) even bother to vote in primaries, where they could save our politics simply by eliminating unqualified and extremist candidates from both parties before the general election.

So our future, as always, depends upon our youth. If they don’t vote and vote smart, we will inevitably descend into tyranny, anarchy, or a kind of corporate rule by default, in which government makes no big change except to unleash the plutocrats, and big business rules all.

If you like the way your cable TV and cell-phone providers treat you now, just wait to see what your kids may have to suffer! The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday, allowing employers to force their workers to take all their complaints to private, individual commercial arbitration, is just a premonition.

Teaching new voters how to think about voting and politics—how to cut through all the noise to the signal—is the only thing that can save us.

That’s something I may know a little about. As a law professor for almost three decades, my job was to teach students how to think, not what to think.

The “what” changes often, with time, circumstances and new evidence. Sometimes, but not always, reasonable people can come to reasonably differing conclusions from the same facts. But if you know “how” to think, you can “go with the flow” and still come out both next to right and confident in your thinking, most or all of the time.

For voting, the main trick is to understand that we have a representative democracy. The issues we decide by plebiscite or referendum are minuscule compared to those our representatives decide for us (or duck!) every day. So your job as a voter is not to solve the problems of the world or our nation, or even your community or school. Your job is to pick the right people to solve them.

Unless you run for office yourself, before you vote you must “interview” others for a job: the job of governing you. You ought to be as careful in picking them, for example, as you are in selecting a dentist to cure a big toothache, a doctor to work on an apparently serious illness, or a teacher or professor for introductory courses in your major subject.

The focus should be on them, not on the problem or on you. When we go to a dentist or doctor, most of us don’t try to diagnose, let alone cure, the malady ourselves. That’s what we want a specialist for. Nor do we want to focus on ourselves, our own likes and dislikes. You may like sugary sweets, but a good dentist or doctor may tell you to stop eating them. If you’re rational, you’ll at least consider the advice and suppress your own cravings.

This is where our media go so wildly off the tracks. The pols try to get you on their side by reinforcing your likes, dislikes and prejudices. “I’m you’re friend,” they seem to say. “I like what you like and hate what you hate.” The media jump on their bandwagons because strong feelings sell “news.” And for valid evolutionary reasons, negative feelings like fear and hate are the strongest our species has.

But focusing on what’s going on inside your own head—or your gut—is not going to help you pick the best person to solve your problems, any more than it will help you pick the best dentist, doctor or teacher. Hating, disliking and “liking” on Facebook are totally beside the point. You have to keep the focus relentlessly on the pol you are considering electing.

That’s why so-called “negative” campaigning is useless and destructive. It’s not that “negative” data are bad in themselves. We have lots and lots of negative data about our society today. We have huge problems in our world and our nation, some of which I identified earlier in this essay.

Many are getting worse. Over seven years ago, I identified about ten major problems we have as a nation, and I reviewed their status about three years later. All but one of them—foreign oil dependence—have gotten steadily worse. It’s not “negative campaigning” to identify these problems and demand solutions for them.

But that’s not what pols’ campaigns do today. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, Donald and Hillary spent about ten percent of their debating time on these vital problems and possible solutions. The other 90% they spent hurling charges and insults at each other and responding to them.

Not only won’t that sort of thing solve any problem. It’s all a distraction. When you evaluate a pol as candidate, you want to know about that pol. You don’t want to know more about you, your likes and hates. And you certainly don’t want to know about defects in and failures of that pol’s opponents.

Is a political opponent ever the most reliable source of information about anyone? When you want to know something about a newcomer in your community, do you seek out their worst enemy and inquire?

So when you evaluate a candidate, keep the focus on that candidate. Unless you yourself are a policy expert, don’t delve too deeply into how that pol’s solutions compare to a rival’s, or to some abstract ideology. Look at what, if anything, that solution says about the pol proposing it. Is the solution practical? Is it logical? Does it make sense? Would it cause unintended consequences? Is it reckless, for example, risking or inviting war? Would it harm any identifiable class of people? Does it have elements of original thought, or is it based only on broad ideological abstractions, i.e., on simplistic political dogma?

Keep the focus relentlessly on the candidate. That’s the whole point of representative government, isn’t it? If you were expert enough to solve the problem yourself, you should be running for the office, or at least seeking an advisory role. But if you won’t or can’t, you need to pick the right pol, not try to solve the problems yourself.

In political campaigns, you don’t have a chance to form a long acquaintance with a pol on electronic media. You can’t even learn much in a one-hour meet-and-greet, let alone from a presidential debate. All you can do is scratch the surface of a good evaluation.

At a minimum, a good evaluation considers three things: people skills (emotional intelligence, including leadership), policy skills (analytical intelligence, including the ability to see cause and effect), and character. A good pol needs all three. You can’t get people to follow you or agree on a solution unless you can get them to like you, or at least listen to you without wincing. (Hence Donald Trump’s constant stream of insults should have been a red flag.) You can’t solve any problem unless you can think it through, see cause and effect, and stay away from possible unintended consequences. And you can’t get anything done if your character is sufficiently shaky that everyone is constantly taking potshots at you, and some of them have at least a chance of sticking.

Just compare Trump and the Clintons, on the one hand, with Obama on the other. Trump’s administration, barely sixteen months old, has already bogged down in multiple investigations and legal charges. Many, if not most, of Trump’s infamous Tweets are protesting investigation of his alleged crimes. Bill’s presidency had Whitewater, “Travelgate” and an actual impeachment (but no removal) for sexual misconduct and perjury, which occupied most of his second term. Obama’s two terms had no scandal and no investigation because there was nothing to investigate. You may not agree with all of his policies and approaches, but he and his family were and are squeaky clean. (Only after the end of Obama’s presidency did Trump call for an investigation, and then only to pre-empt the Justice Department’s own independent investigation of Trump and his associates, or to distract attention from it.)

We will focus on all these three of these points of analysis in my next essay. For now, suffice it to say that you evaluate a pol by evaluating him or her personally, the same way you would do a dentist or doctor in advance of treatment or a teacher or professor before enrolling in his or her course. You do it by relentless focus on the candidate, not your own emotions or the flaws and failings of others.

Flaws in other people don’t make a candidate any better. If there are no really good candidates with a chance to win, you may have to vote for the lesser of two evils. Doing that is a sacred duty of any voter in a democratic system.

But invidious comparisons are generally unwise. That’s true even within a family. One kid doesn’t rise in parents’ love and esteem—or get out of trouble—just by pointing the finger at another.

The fact that most of our pols today resort primarily to childish “he’s worse!” campaigns just shows how low our process of democratic selection has sunk. When our politics starts to resemble family arguments of pre-pubescent children, we had better mend our ways.

Footnote: Presidential candidates may discuss these issues in campaigning. But they are not part of a president’s job and not generally within a president’s power to affect.

Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, power over these “cultural” or “social” issues belongs to the several States or to the people. A president can affect them only indirectly, by appointing judges and Supreme Court justices who use the federal courts to affect these issues by interpreting our Constitution.

The Supreme Court decides important cases on these issues only every few years, and a president has power to fill a Supreme Court vacancy even more seldom. So promoting these issues as decisive reasons to choose a president is like picking a real-estate agent to run a bank because some day the bank might move its headquarters.

Pols and parties bang the drum on these issues because they know that many voters feel strongly about them and can’t begin to get their minds around the complex economic and international issues that affect their lives far more directly. In other words, pols bang these drums to get you to live in your own head or gut and to distract you from picking a wise, competent leader who can improve your and your family’s lives directly (or ruin them, for example, by involving you, your family or your community in an unnecessary war—an act directly within a president’s power).

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