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?
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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?
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.
"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:
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.
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.
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."
At least it's more colorful than our system.
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."
"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.
Myth: Campaign Spending Is Out of Control
Now here's one that seems impossible to argue. The numbers are freaking astronomical. President Obama and Governor Romney raised $769 million and $642 million, respectively (as of September 30, 2012) -- that's $1.4 billion total, for a freaking political campaign. And that's not even counting the tens of millions poured into political action committees.
And wicked awesome campaign buses.
How can something this important be decided by a billion dollars' worth of ads that spam the commercial breaks of Two and a Half Men?
But Actually ...
Well ... that's kind of the point. It's really important. Yet when it comes to spending, most industries put politics to shame.
Somehow, giant zeppelins filled with booze just seem like less of a waste.
For example, in 2011, General Motors spent $1.78 billion in advertising to be the No. 1 car company in America, which is a fraction of the nearly $14 billion spent by the entire auto industry. Between the two of them, Verizon and AT&T spent $3.5 billion to be the top two companies in their sector. And $1.34 billion was spent on makeup ads just by L'Oreal.
Political campaigns are just marketing campaigns, and they have to buy their ad time just like Toyota does (forcing TV stations to give the time away would bankrupt them, since it would be pushing aside paid advertisers for unpaid political ads). And that means that they feel the impact of increasing communications expenses the same as everyone else, regardless of industry: new technology platforms and media outlets, a growing population, inflation, etc.
We'd be shocked if mobile billboards broke 10 miles to the gallon.
Yes, the $1.4 billion price tag for 2012 seems like a lot compared to previous elections, like 1996, when Clinton and Bob Dole spent just $90 million combined. That's quite a bit, but only about one-third of what Americans spent that year on potato chips, as one Federal Elections Commission member found. The 2000 campaign cost George W. Bush and Al Gore about $143 million total ... which was less than one-tenth of the amount spent on fast food advertising the next year. Again, it's all relative.
So while it is an objectively insane amount of money, doesn't it make sense for a society to spend more money figuring out who should become the most powerful person in the world than it does letting everyone know that there is now a Cool Ranch Doritos taco at Taco Bell?
Locos Tacos do have more of an impact on our daily lives than any politician.
Myth: We Judge Candidates Based on Silly "Gaffes" Instead of Real Issues
Obama was caught saying that rural voters cling to guns and Bibles! Romney was taped admitting that he doesn't care about half the country! Ron Paul ate Lincoln's bones on live television and then shouted "Do something about it!" to a stunned public!
Judging by the amount of media coverage they receive, you'd assume that political gaffes are the only things that matter in an election cycle. Any time a politician accidentally slips and says something stupid, condescending or offensive, you better believe that all of the armchair political scientists you work with will show up the next day saying, "Well, Biden just made a gaffe and called all women lazy; this race is as good as done."
But Actually ...
The truth is, Biden could accidentally fart out of his mouth and it wouldn't move the needle an inch. Gaffes get a ton of play in the media, and while it's true that candidates in a primary can lose their shot at the big job if a brain fart stains their mouth-undies too much (Rick Perry, we're talking about you), the same rules don't seem to apply to the actual election. Michael Tessler, an associate professor at Brown University, set out earlier this year to see if he could discern any significant impact from a particularly nasty Obama gaffe: his claim that the private sector was "doing fine" amid one of the worst economic crises in history.
"I mean they are doing fine ... ancially. Poor."
Tessler polled a thousand people -- those who'd heard about the gaffe, those who hadn't and (presumably) those who were so sick of hearing the word "gaffe" that they punched the interviewer right in his damn face. In the end, there was no substantial difference in political preference between the groups that were and weren't aware of Obama's highly publicized slip-up. A gaffe that had dominated the news cycle for days didn't change the outcome of the election one jot.
But what about other, bigger gaffes? Like the aforementioned line about bitter people clinging to guns and Bibles? Can we see a chart about that? Maybe one with more than just four measly dots?
More Dots = More Science
Wow! According to the series of dots splattered all over the above chart, Obama's comments meant nothing.
Obama's numbers remained stable (until they actually rose a little bit several days later), and the various misspeaks of the current election haven't been any more significant. John Sides, a political science professor at Washington University, put together this lovely graph of gaffes in the 2012 election:
Either candidate could be taped riding a hobo's disemboweled carcass like a toboggan without breaking the margin of error.
Why does this happen? Well, the bottom line is that the kind of people who would be swayed by an offensive gaffe -- that is, the people who haven't followed politics closely enough to have made up their minds on a candidate -- are precisely the kind of people who aren't even aware when a gaffe happens, because they simply aren't paying attention to all of the political talk shows, blogs, etc. that endlessly discuss them. Meanwhile, the kind of people who do pay close enough attention to political races to actually notice these gaffes are, statistically speaking, more well-informed to begin with and have already made up their minds, so they won't be swayed by just one gaffe.
Which might explain why Romney was able to tell off half the country without seeing his presidential hopes collapse (and in fact took the lead not long after).
Myth: Voter Turnout Is Plummeting, and Voter Apathy Is at an All-Time High
One story that news stations always pick up during an election year is the voter turnout, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. After the Nixon/Humphrey election of 1968, a year that also saw the assassinations of two major political figures, the U.S. was just plain tired, and Americans decided that they'd rather stay home and nap for the next election in 1972. Turnout dropped like a rock, going from around 61 percent to 55 percent, and it just kept going downhill from there. At its lowest, 1996, only around 48 percent of voters got in on the action, and according to the numbers, we're only now returning to the same voter levels as 1972, the Year of the Great Big Who Gives a Fuck. So we're not exactly doing great.
The number of Nixons in office has dropped dramatically since then.
Clearly, election seasons of mudslinging, boasting, endless spending and virgin sacrifices have disillusioned voters.
But Actually ...
It's not that we're bad at motivating voters; it's that we're bad at math.
People have been trying to figure out why turnout dropped for some time now. Part of the reason for the initial 1972 drop is the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which made 18-year-olds eligible to vote, and we all know how much we can count on them to do something important.
"I'm just here to sell weed. Can I, like, wait in the corner or something?"
But the other problem is just the way we calculate it. Voter turnout is generally measured by taking the total number of voters in an election and dividing it by the total over-18 population of the United States. The problem is, not everyone is eligible to vote; as Futurama reminded us, anyone who has been convicted of a felony is ineligible to vote. There are also numerous immigrants who aren't quite eligible to vote yet, along with overseas Americans who still retain the right to vote in our elections. If you measure the total eligible population, even though there are some dips and rises from year to year, the numbers look much better.
In fact, as of 2008, turnout was as good as it was in 1968, which is great. Our ability to properly calculate and talk about voter turnout? Not so much.
"If you guys want to grab a few more ballots each, that's totally cool with us."
Myth: It All Just Comes Down to a Few "Swing" Voters Anyway
You've no doubt been told before that swing voters completely determine elections. Lifelong Democrats will vote for Democrats, Republicans will vote for Republicans, but a candidate lives and dies by his ability to persuade the elusive third group -- the swing demographic.
These "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads" and "jai alai uncles" don't make up their minds until the last possible minute. We view these people as electoral cheat codes: If a candidate can mash the right number of their buttons, he'll unlock a major power-up and convince all of the swingers to swing his way. But how many of you have ever actually met a swing voter? That is, someone who honestly could go either way this election, and also actually plans to vote?
"Perhaps once I enter the booth, I'll somehow magically make an informed decision ..."
Well, if you find one, shake his hand -- his vote is apparently the only one that matters.
But Actually ...
While those people certainly exist, they don't fall into any large categorized groups, and there's no evidence that they make up a meaningful chunk of the electorate or decide the outcome. National elections don't hinge on swaying a few undecideds; they hinge on activating unmotivated party members.
Barack Obama isn't out there to persuade Republicans. He's out there to remind Democrats. Winning is all about convincing the mass of apathetic people who agree with you to stop masturbating long enough to wait in a line full of old people.
"Does anyone else smell death and Cracker Barrel?"
It truly is the worst and most difficult job in the whole world.
Special thanks to Wynn for their help in researching this. Jared Whitley is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. His blog is at Whitleypedia. You can find more from Kristi on Twitter and Tumblr. Robert Evans writes a travel column for Vagabondish and can be contacted here. Jim Avery occasionally writes for NintendoGal.com and ABC News Sacramento.
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