As November 6 approaches, we once again hear the calls of political activists insisting that it is not only our right but our responsibility to vote in the upcoming election. We Americans take this oft-repeated mantra as a given, as a basic necessity of an effective government. But seeing that even informed voters have an amateur understanding of the issues facing the country, are we really in a position to decide which policies should be enacted on a national scale? Does the electorate understand the issues on which it votes?
The economy, the basic problem of putting bread on American tables, will be the deciding factor for most voters this year. To spare us the trouble of finding statistics for ourselves, President Clinton generously summarized the nation’s finances for us at the Democratic National Convention: “Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: 24 million. Democrats: 42.” It does not take a skeptic to realize that Clinton’s “job scores” are subjective at best and pulled out of his rear-end at worst. How can one measure which administration created which jobs, especially when these are “private-sector jobs” not directly created by the government? Yet it is commonplace for politicians, analysts, and voters to conclusively link policies to job creation.
There are two primary problems with this approach. First, we cannot know how long economic policies take to have an effect. Are the prosperous years during Clinton’s term a result of his own work or of Bush Sr.’s? Surely a policy meant to affect 300 million Americans might take more than 4 years to have a measurable impact. Second, we must consider all external economic factors when measuring a policy’s outcome, especially in today’s global economy. That means considering economic developments in Europe, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and game-changing inventions like the Internet. Maybe Bush is to blame for the housing bubble or maybe Barney Frank is, but neither can be faulted for the debt crisis in Greece or the fall of the Euro (though Gore can definitely be credited for inventing the Internet). Seeing how immensely complicated it is to evaluate the effect of an economic policy, it is better for the informed, but not expert, voter to refrain from making an ill-informed decision based on the economy.
Foreign policy is another major issue Americans vote on. There is a general consensus in our media: Republicans compromise on civil rights to fight terror, and Democrats are soft on terror to protect civil rights. Consider the outcry when Obama bent his waist a little too low and bowed to Saudi king Abdul-Aziz. Accusations of Obama sympathizing with Arab regimes abounded. Three years after the fact, the Romney campaign still maintains that Obama “bows to foreign dictators.” In reality, however, both the Bush and Obama administrations have been strong supporters of the Saudis for the simple reason that they are a balancing force against Iran. Symbolic acts aside, Democrats and Republicans share the same general attitude towards Middle Eastern allies and enemies.
On the flip side, Bush was widely criticized for compromising civil rights when he instituted the notorious PATRIOT Act that greatly expanded the government’s ability to wiretap phones. Obama, however, quietly extended the PATRIOT Act without so much as a peep from the media. Furthermore, most Democrat and Republican congressmen supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when they were first waged. By 2008, the parties had reversed directions and both presidential candidates advocated for withdrawal from these conflicts. Their plans differed: Obama’s put more pressure on an immediate withdrawal and McCain wanted a more flexible timeline, but their primary aims were the same. Thus, while Democrats and Republicans differ with regards to international politics, they diverge on details but not on primary goals. An expert is needed to judge between their policies and not an informed, intelligent, but still amateur, voter.
In fact this is true for most political issues on which voters base their decisions. The Congressmen themselves often do not read the bills they approve in full because they are too long and technical for anyone but an expert in the field to understand. Certainly we voters cannot effectively judicate between nuanced policy distinctions when even our representatives cannot. In fact, when we vote on a highly complex issue that we do not understand, we may as well be flipping a coin. Our choice is rendered even more arbitrary because representatives do not always read the bills they pass. Finally, candidates often reveal only what they plan to accomplish once elected but not the details of how they plan to do it, introducing even more randomness into the democratic process. In this sense casting a ballot is more like playing a game of Russian roulette than making a valued contribution to a time-honored civil process. The choice we make is random but the consequences may be drastic.
Even in its imperfect form, voting nevertheless serves some useful purposes. We must vote to ensure the accountability of our representatives and prevent government corruption. We can also choose to vote only on issues that we personally understand at an expert level. If we vote based on issues on which we have a truly expert understanding, then we can reduce the randomness of the democratic process and perhaps salvage the effectiveness of our vote.