Right now is the stage in every American election season when most of us are pretty sure that this whole democracy thing was a mistake. So many terrible ads, so many lies, so many news stories focusing only on the stupidest elements of the process. Why do we even bother?
Well, damn it, we're here to tell you that it's not as bad as you think. In fact, some of what we hate most about the American democratic process aren't flaws at all -- they're actually what make the whole thing tick.
So let's knock down some of the more cynical myths, shall we?
#8. Myth: It's All Pointless, Since Candidates Don't Keep Their Promises Anyway
Nothing unifies voters more than the cynicism they share after a politician lies to them. Those who vote do so because they're optimistic, but at the end of the day, we're always ready for politicians to fail to deliver on any of their campaign promises once we put them in office. We believe that hopeful future presidents, like all job candidates, will say anything their prospective employers want to hear in hopes of securing the gig. George H.W. Bush going back on his no tax hike promise, Barack Obama's failure to close Gitmo, William Howard Taft's promise to lose 30 pounds -- these people speak only in lies.
MPI / Stringer via Getty
"My efforts were doomed from the start, really."
But Actually ...
Statistically, those failures were actually the exception, not the rule. Political scientists in the 1980s set out to evaluate the promise-keeping history of American presidents and found that 75 percent of pre-election pledges made by presidents Wilson through Carter were met. Most people are lucky to keep that kind of ratio going in a marriage, let alone while running a country. And yes, this trend still holds true with our modern leaders.
Nicholas Kamm / Getty
"And that NDAA is totes under control."
For instance, during the 2008 campaign, Obama made 508 distinct promises for his term in office. As of right now, he's successfully followed through on 193 of those promises. That sounds a little low, but you have to take into account the fact that "president" doesn't mean "dictator." A president can't just do anything he wants -- he has to work with Congress, and because Congress isn't exclusively populated by Obama's friends, it means that he needs to compromise. Which he did, on another 79 of those promises. Another 44 have stalled, while 102 are still "in the works." Add all that up, and you'll see that Obama at least made the effort to fulfill some 418 of his 508 campaign promises. Nearly half of those efforts have, so far, been successful.
#7. Myth: Campaigns Run Mindless Attack Ads Instead of Giving Us Substance
How fast do you reach for the remote these days when you hear creepy music over a black and white picture of a politician? "Congressman Smith voted for over 1,200 tax increases in his first year in office ..." If you live in an American battleground state, you'll see 12 of these corny political attack ads an hour, even if you have the TV off.
Obama for America
Way to go, words. Even the mute button is useless.
And everyone hates them -- 80 percent of voters find negative ads unethical and damaging to democracy. Plus, we (again) assume that politicians are twisting the truth to manipulate us. This isn't the 1950s, guys; we don't fall for everything we see on television. Why not just knock it off and stop ruining democracy?
Romney for President
This is all Adobe Premiere's fault.
But Actually ...
When exposed to a barrage of negativity, we may feign disgust, but are actually more likely to show up at the polls. Oh, and we're better informed, too -- in one study, people who watched attack ads knew more about the issues of the election than others. After all, negative commercials prompt fact-checking and force opponents to issue a response to clear their names. So what some would call deplorable smear campaigns that belong in the gutter, others would call a dialogue. And it's the voters who benefit.
For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain claimed that Barack Obama's economic plan would raise taxes for small business owners. Obama hit back with an ad that better explained his platform, then one-upped McCain by asserting that McCain's tax plan had a health credit that was also coming from increased taxes. So both candidates forced the other guy to explain himself, bringing more information to the voters. But maybe more importantly, negative messages force us to listen.
Obama for America
"The Chinese military? That's the least American military in the world."
It's just the way your brain works. It's easy to ignore video of a candidate standing in a wheat field with inspirational music playing while he talks about his small town American values. But negative language sticks with us. It's evolution, as well as common sense -- your brain is tuned to look for problems so they can be solved. A positive and negative ad can each contain an equal amount of good information, but your brain perks up at the one that's also saying, "If you elect this other guy, that's going to create a big problem in your life." It's the same reason you have one reaction to seeing a bunny rabbit and another to seeing a tiger.
Unless you're Herman Cain, who bypassed the whole tiger thing and went straight for bunny murder in the commercial below. We still haven't figured out what he was advertising, other than his own awesome craziness:
#6. Myth: The Two-Party System Is Dividing Us into Opposing Tribes of Extremists
Americans are as frustrated with our lack of political choices as we are with our lack of genitalia choices. It's ridiculous -- how can the same country that offers 500 varieties of dog toothpaste only offer up two viable options for the most important job in the country? Look at your Facebook feed -- everyone that you haven't already blocked for their political rants is bemoaning the fact that both Mitt Romney and Obama suck. Which explains why 57 percent of Americans wish that they had at least one more option at the poll. Surely there has to be a better way.
John Kobal Foundation / Paul J. Richards / Chip Somodeville
Ron Perot 2012.
But Actually ...
Choices are nice, but there's one underrated advantage of the two-party system: It makes everyone more moderate. Multiparty systems, as attractive as they may sound, also lead to more fanaticism.
Robyn Beck / Getty
Yes, it could be worse than this.
Think of it this way: Say you have a group of 10 dudes who are trying to figure out where to go out to eat. If the town only has two restaurants (a Hooters and a low-rent Hooters knockoff called TitWings), it's easier to get everybody to all agree on Hooters -- you only need six guys to come around. But if there are dozens of restaurants and each guy wants to go to a different one, they're all going to argue at the bar until they starve to death a month later. It's simply easier to bring people together when they don't have that many places to go. So despite how extreme Democrats and Republicans each claim the other party is, ideological polarization is less likely with only two parties.
For proof, look at the Galactic Senate. Or India. Let's just go with India. Multiparty systems foster excessive regionalism, with elected leaders focusing on trivial local concerns rather than larger national ones, the equivalent of that one lone guy who is zealous about eating at Buffalo Boobs despite the fact that it's not even a restaurant. This is the problem in India, which has so many political parties that we can't count them, making the country so difficult to manage that it's often called a "functioning anarchy."
Sam Panthaky / Getty
At least it's more colorful than our system.
#5. Myth: Political Rhetoric Is More Hateful and Divisive Than Ever
Here are some actual jibes that were exchanged in the debates leading up to the election:
"I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years. We just can't afford four more years like the last four years."
"Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia. The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."
Jewel Samad / Getty
"Also, your mother is a, uh ... prostitute."
Whoa, there! Cool your jets, Rocky Obama! It's no wonder the post-debate dialogue saw headlines like "President Rude? Final Debate Interruption Count: Obama 23, Romney 1" and "Joe Biden's Rude Debate Laughter: The Joke's on Him."
And this picture, blasting one of the moderators for good measure. She's the devil, maybe?
But Actually ...
Quick quiz: Name the presidential candidate who was so awful that his opponent's supporters warned that if the guy won ...
"... murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."
And also that voters would see their children "writhing on a pike." So who was it? Bill Clinton? Hitler? Nope, Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, supporters of John Adams warned that Jefferson's election would lead to Cormac McCarthyworld. Apparently early Americans were really into the apocalypse back then, because Jefferson won.
And everyone in the world died. The end.
What we're trying to say is that what qualifies as "harsh" now would be considered weak centuries ago, and in fact, anywhere else in the world today. For example, here's a video of a slight kerfuffle between the departed senators Arlen Specter and Edward Kennedy during the Alito hearings in 2006. If you can make it, you'll notice at the 3:35 mark where Specter mildly rebukes Kennedy when the latter implies that he could call for votes instead of Specter, who was the committee chairman at the time.
They might as well be having tea and holding hands as they bicker. Now watch this actual riot that broke out in the Indian Parliament a few weeks later. Spoiler: It ends with bloodied legislators in ambulances.
Even the Britons, reputed throughout the world for their unfailing politeness, check their manners at the door when it comes to representative government. In this video, the speaker of the House of Commons screams "ORDER!" to the house about a million times as representatives shout "Growl!" and "Mumble mumble!" over him. He then goes on to chastise representatives for being the naughty schoolboys they are.
Obviously, our point isn't that it's a good thing for people to act like dicks during a debate. It's that you always have to judge these things in context. A world where people rely purely on cold logic when discussing policy differences would be nice, but that's not our world. Not now, and not ever in the past.