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The Lesser of Two Lesser Evils

[by Ross Levine]

How do you decide whom to vote for in a primary?  You're not being asked to choose between members of two supposedly distinct parties, but between individuals who belong to the same party and more or less espouse the same ideas.  There are differences, of course, and you may find ways of disqualifying candidate A or B by virtue of a past vote in the Senate or a statement they made on a particular issue that you found unacceptable.  But surely all the candidates have made some questionable statements, and advocated some skanky positions, so if you disqualify one, you may have to disqualify all.  So if it's not about their positions, what then?

Of course, ideally, it is about their positions, and so you try in vain to tune in to a debate or two and make your choice depending on what they say.  And again, you're disappointed, because they all have their moments of political brilliance, as well as their share of disingenuous blundering.  And so this is the point where you must make another decision -- not which candidate to support, but how to arrive at that decision.

Once you reach this juncture, there are only two directions you can go.  One is toward what is known as a "gut feeling," the other is its opposite, where you begin calculating, trying to remove emotion from the process.

To arrive at a gut feeling, you must appraise the candidates by everything except what they say.  What do they look like?  How do they act?  Are they charismatic or phlegmatic?  Do you find them appealing or do they grate on your nerves?  Do they seem "presidential," or perhaps you just can't imagine them during a crisis responding to questions at a White House press conference.

But what is your gut feeling worth?  You could be "wrong," i.e., the candidate who seems appealing now may turn out to be a real stinker later.  Or what does it matter if he or she is enjoyable to listen to if, when power is added to the equation, it becomes evident that there's no real skill there in wielding it?  How can you know if your attraction to a candidate means that candidate will be an effective president, and, since no president is ever completely successful, the stronger your gut feeling is, the deeper your disappointment may be.

The other direction is to start calculating.  Which candidate will most likely be able to beat the most likely opponent?  Which one will be able to do well in the South?  Which one's past will be least subject to his/her opponent's scrutiny?  Which one is likely to do better with independents?   Here you are attempting to remove the personal aspect from making your choice -- you're being rational, putting the party above your own feelings about the candidates.  But aren't you playing a zero-sum game, when you consider all the factors -- all the calculations -- that are completely beyond your control?  In other words, you may end up voting for a loser out of fear -- the fear that the individual you really wanted -- via the gut feeling method – will not be able to win.

There is a third method as well, I suppose.  Voting for the one you think everyone else is voting for.  In this scenario, you are not going with a gut feeling, nor are you calculating.  You're simply doing what you think everybody else is doing because if they're doing it, you might as well just surrender your own will and play along.

No wonder so many people don't even bother to vote.  They've made the fourth, last-resort decision, that it doesn't matter anyway, that all the candidates suck, and that the idealism of a campaign always becomes the reality of botched initiatives and knee-jerk responses to crises and the failure, in a system geared to the expedient, to establish anything that looks good well into the future.  It's not that I sympathize with the non-voters, but I do understand their reluctance to pick one poison over another.

And here's where the true meaning of an election emerges, and where the fault really lies.  Yes, everyone should vote, but dragging yourself to the voting booth is simply not enough.  Punching out a chad or inking a bubble for one candidate or another is a first step toward participating in democracy, but it doesn't end there.  You don't just elect a president and then return home and hope for the best.  You vote for the candidate -- whether by gut feeling, calculation or the sheep technique -- and then you take office in your own life and try to live according to that which you supposedly voted for.

I say supposedly because many people aren't voting for a real leader but for leaders that reflect their own unwillingness to lead.  They don't want someone in the White House who may require any sort of sacrifice or effort on their part to make their ideals a reality.  They vote for candidates who they hope will do it all for them without requiring their participation at all.  And this is why, even in a democracy, all the gut feelings and calculations combined produce, for the most part, an unbridled mediocrity that knows no future other than tomorrow and no past beyond yesterday.  Each of us, by absolving ourselves of our responsibility to live our own lives according to the principles we supposedly expect of our leaders, dooms those leaders to become reflections of our own indolence and apathy.

What a radical concept.  Instead of putting our energy into deciding which of the candidates is the "right one," we look at ourselves and decide what we ourselves would have to do to earn our votes.  Not that we even want to run a nation of 300 million less than ideal human beings, but let's just say we're running the little country we call home.  Whatever we find incapable of doing is probably what the nation itself and her leaders are incapable of doing.  Which is why, it seems, all our hopes for the oft-invoked concept of “change” come to naught.

But not always.  Every now and then -- and these "now and thens" don't come often -- the people elect a leader who actually rises above non-expectation and acts boldly and decisively with the future in mind.  It is in situations like this that the real power of democracy asserts itself.  When the people, in their blind quest to select a leader, actually do so.  When that happens, it's a confluence of so many variables and coincidences and fortuitous outcomes that it's truly a miracle.   But don't hold your breath.  After eight years of Bush, you may be hoping for a miracle in the ballot box, but chances are you won't get one. So, once inside the voting booth, just do the best you can.  And at home, just do a little better than that.

Because, when it comes down to it, we ourselves are really our only hope.

January 23, 2008

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