“The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it. Doom is the operative ethic.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Election day is approaching. Voting, they say, is a noble endeavor and the ultimate expression of what it is to be an American. I say otherwise. Using facts and studies – as opposed to mere opinion – I will demonstrate below that voting is pointless, and your vote means nothing, for three main reasons: 1: American voting laws are arbitrary and corrupt; 2. Once in office, politicians virtually ignore the average citizen in favor of Big Business; and 3. The vast majority of votes are cast in ignorance, drowning out any well-reasoned votes.
Part 1: Voting Laws Facilitate Corruption and Inequality
Think all votes are equal? Think again. There are a variety of ways that the American political system rigs elections against both voters and candidates. For example, gerrymandering is a term that refers to manipulating district boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group. Gerrymandering occurs when, under the pretext of updating voting districts to reflect census data, politicians redraw those districts to give their political party a better chance of winning in upcoming elections. How do they achieve this advantage? Consider the chart below:
The first of the three rectangles shows a hypothetical city and the political views of its citizens, represented by individual colored squares. We’ll call the red squares “Republicans” and the blue squares “Democrats.” An upcoming election will be decided by splitting the city into five districts and tallying up the votes in each district. Then, the party that wins the majority of the five districts will win the city election. There are clearly more Democrat squares than Republican squares, so the Dems should obviously win the election, right? Well, in an equally divided district – such as the second rectangle – the Democrats would win all five districts and the election. But in a gerrymandered city – represented by the third rectangle – the makeup of the districts has been manipulated so that three out of the five have more red squares than blue squares, so the Republicans have won.
Gerrymandering has gone on for hundreds of years in America and is only getting worse as time goes on:
By the redistricting cycles that followed the 2000 and 2010 censuses, political parties had perfected the art of gerrymandering. Lines were etched with computer-aided precision for partisan purposes… Michigan shrank by a single House seat in the 2000 census but managed to squeeze six incumbent Democratic lawmakers to compete with one another in three congressional districts. In Florida, one congressional district was ninety miles long and no more than three miles wide. (Waldman, 2016, p. 226-7)
One of the more blatant examples occurred in 2002 in Texas, when Republicans won control of the legislature and gerrymandered local districts without interference from Democrats who lacked the votes to block the move. Whereas redistricting would under normal circumstances occur only directly after a census showed the need for altered districts, this occurred two years after the 2000 national census and was seen as a “nakedly partisan scheme… solely to squeeze political advantage” (Waldman, 2016, p. 227-8).
In 2012 state elections Pennsylvania Republicans lost the popular vote but they still won 72% of the seats in their states by drawing districts like this:
Maryland Democrats did the exact same thing:
Gerrymandered political parties are so entrenched that “it would not take an electoral wave so much as a tsunami to change majority control of many legislative bodies. In part this is due to partisan line-drawing… Voters have less and less reason to show up” (Waldman, 2016, p. 245). Author Mike Lofgren concurs, predicting that “state legislatures have gerrymandered congressional districts effectively enough that it is unlikely that Republicans will lose control of the House until at least 2020” (2012, pp. xv-xvi). Thus, gerrymandering may start local, but it has national implications. The takeaway: if you live in a district whose political lines have been altered in such a way as to make your vote pointless, then there is no reason to vote at all.
Gerrymandering is not the only way that corrupt politicians bend and break the law to achieve their own ends. A variety of voter suppression techniques, with racial implications, are often enacted in the south. These include laws that limit days and times one can vote – disproportionately disadvantaging the poor, who often work jobs with erratic hours and limited vacation time. For example:
In August 2013, North Carolina enacted the worst voter suppression law in the country. Among other provisions, this “monster” law (H.B. 589) shortens the early voting period by a full week, eliminates same-day registration, requires strict forms of voter ID, prevents out-of-precinct ballots from being counted, expands the ability to challenge voters at the polls, and ends a successful pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year olds. Each of these provisions has a disproportionate impact on North Carolina’s African-American and Latino voters. (Source)
Voter suppression techniques also include stricter-than-usual requirements on what documentation one needs to vote. Don Yelton, a former Buncombe County, North Carolina Republican Party precinct chair, said in 2013 regarding voter ID laws, “if it hurts a bunch of college kids that’s too lazy to get up off their bohunkus [sic] and get a photo ID, so be it,” and “if it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything, so be it.” According to author Michael Waldman, “of the eleven states with the highest African American turnout in 2008, seven made it harder to vote. Nine of the twelve states with the largest Hispanic population growth imposed new restrictions. These groups favored Democrats” (Waldman, 2016, p. 201).
Similarly, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, “Republican legislators in forty-one states introduced 180 bills” to make it harder to vote:
In Maine the legislature repealed the statute that allowed voters to register on Election Day. Florida and two other states curbed voter registration drives, which are especially valuable for lower income citizens. Florida also imposed potential financial penalties for mistakes by volunteers that the League of Women Voters… felt compelled to shut down its voter registration operation. Ohio cut back on early voting on the days most frequently used by Democrats and minority voters. Three states required voters to produce documentary proof of citizenship – a passport, birth certificate, or naturalization papers – to register to vote; 7 percent of eligible voters and 12 percent of the poor do not have those papers, and one out of three women do not have proof of citizenship with their current married name… Texas’s law drew particular mockery because of its provisions that did not recognize a student ID, but did recognize a gun license… What was new about these laws was the requirements that citizens show ID that they simply did not have. About 11 percent of voters do not have a current driver’s license or other state government photo identification, especially the poor… Minorities were hit especially hard. Black voters were nearly three times as likely as white voters to lack a photo ID” (Waldman, 2016, p. 202).
So the Republican Party is actively trying to restrict poor and black voters’ ability to vote. That’s bad. But, as the saying goes, “if you’re not part of the problem…” Indeed, Democrats have seemed unconcerned in removing restrictive voter registration laws. After Obama’s 2008 election, his administration “downplayed the structural democracy reform measures that might have given his own supporters a greater say in government. His administration refused to designate more state agencies to register voters under the ‘Motor Voter’ law. Democrats in the White House and Congress moved no new voting reform legislation, even when they had a filibuster-proof majority in 2009” (Waldman, 2016, p. 205). The takeaway: one vote is by definition unequal to another if any votes are suppressed.
Say you do successfully vote. You’re taking part in the primary election, choosing your party’s candidate for president. Well, I have bad news for you: the primary system is profoundly screwed up. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has the great responsibility of nominating a Democratic candidate for president yet operates with esoteric and arcane rules involving delegates and superdelegates, the individuals who end up voting for presidential candidates based off how they do in each primary.
These rules allow candidates to enact secret power plays to dick each other over. Take, for example, the 2008 struggle between Obama and Hillary for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) presidential nomination. Clinton and her team considered exploiting a loophole that would allow her to pull delegates out from under Barack. More recently, the campaigning for the DNC presidential nod that began in 2015 was marred by a surfeit of shady maneuverings that always seemed to benefit Hillary to the detriment of Bernie Sanders:
In August, before the first Democratic debate had taken place, the Clinton campaign reported that she had one-fifth of superdelegates already committed to backing her at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. According to Wikipedia, roughly half of the 700+ superdelegates have already committed to backing Hillary Clinton. (Source)
Bernie was hobbled both by Clinton’s efforts and the often-incomprehensible rules set by the DNC. To wit:
Though Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide over Hillary Clinton, he will likely receive fewer delegates than she will. Sanders won 60 percent of the vote, but thanks to the Democratic Party’s nominating system, he leaves the Granite State with at least 13 delegates while she leaves with at least 15 delegates. New Hampshire has 24 “pledged” delegates, which are allotted based on the popular vote. Sanders has 13, and Clinton has 9, with 2 currently allotted to neither. But under Democratic National Committee rules, New Hampshire also has 8 “superdelegates,” party officials who are free to commit to whomever they like, regardless of how their state votes. Their votes count the same as delegates won through the primary. (Source)
Evidence also suggests that Bernie was gouged by a variety of behind-the-scenes backstabbery. Most damning is a leaked email showing that top DNC executives colluded with Clinton in plotting smear campaigns against Sanders. The DNC scheduled debates during times when people were unlikely to watch, in order to prevent Hilary’s support from eroding. Finally, instead of providing voters with impartial information about the candidates, some local Democratic party offices allowed the Clinton team to “run a campaign from their office, sharing resources and space in a place where caucus voters might come with the expectation of balanced information on all of the party’s candidates.”
The primaries result in very few candidates – who have Machiavellian savvy and resources to court superdelegates and party bigwigs – remaining politically viable. In other words, party primaries serve as a bottleneck through which honest candidates are filtered out, leaving only those willing to play The Game. The takeaway regarding the primary system? Even if you support a candidate in your party’s presidential primaries, your vote is easily outweighed by corruption within that party.
But maybe all of this is inapplicable. Maybe you were a die-hard Clinton supporter from Day One, and it doesn’t matter to you that the hulking DNC prolapsed the anus of the whimpering, prostrated Sanders campaign. Well, as you might notice from the length of this essay, we’re just getting started on how the American political system can fuck you over. We now turn to the Electoral College.
Electors are apportioned to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of electors in a state is the same as the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled. Thus, there are 538 electors, corresponding to the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, plus three electors for DC. Except for Maine and Nebraska, states operate on a “winner-take-all” system, where all electors are pledged to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in that state.
This results in inequality between votes cast in different states. Let’s look at an example. Wyoming has 3 electoral votes, or 1 for every 135,000 voters. California, which has a much greater population, has 55 electoral votes, or 1 for 411,000 voters. This means that it takes three times as many Californians to earn one electoral vote, giving Wyoming voters three times as much power as California in the Electoral College. Under this system, your vote can count for less simply because of the state you live in. The takeaway: if you live in a state with less relative electoral clout, then your vote means less.
Most states are relatively consistent when it comes to which party voters choose; this is why we often hear commentators talk about “red” and “blue” states. The winner-take-all system means that, if a candidate wins a state, they gain every electoral vote that state has to offer, even if a significant number of people voted for the other candidate. Texas and California, for example, consistently go Republican and Democratic, respectively. But what many people don’t realize is that there is a large minority in both states that votes the other way. In the 2012 presidential election, if the electoral system was proportional – instead of winner-take-all – 16 of Texas’s electoral votes would have gone to Obama, and 20 of California’s would have gone to Romney. However, in the winner-take-all system that we’re stuck with, states that are consistently red or blue are ignored by candidates from the disadvantaged party; why waste your time when, even if you get 49 percent of the vote, you still receive zero electoral votes? The takeaway: in a winner-take-all system, anyone who wants to vote for a losing party might as well stay home.
However, there are a handful of so-called “swing states” – like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – that are not consistently red or blue, where voters can go either way. Candidates often straight-up ignore states that elect one party consistently, and instead tailor their campaign to voters in swing states. For example, if you’re a Democrat, liberal Massachusetts is a Sure Thing for you from Day One, so you’re going to focus on wooing undecided Midwesterners. This results in tens of millions of irrelevant votes cast in states where the outcome is already a foregone conclusion. In the 2012 presidential election, 80 percent of votes cast had no impact on the outcome. That’s right, four out of every five votes cast meant nothing. The takeaway: unless you live in a swing state, your vote probably means absolutely nothing.
The corruption orgy that is the Electoral College was on full display during the 2000 presidential election, when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote, yet lost the election to Republican George W. Bush. Gore won a half million more popular votes than his rival, but Bush won in the Electoral College, with 271 votes to Gore’s 266. Bush won a few strategic swing states and, despite his small margins of victory, received all of those states’ electoral pledges, elevating his total to a single vote over 270 – the College’s threshold to win the election – even as the popular vote was still coming in for Gore. And there were no special circumstances that produced this undemocratic outcome; a presidential candidate could lose the popular vote but still win the Electoral College in any election. All it takes is the right combination of narrow victories in a few swing states. Public opinion polls have shown consistent opposition to the Electoral College from the 1940s onward, but it’s politically impossible to abolish given that states enjoying disproportionate political power to their population would have to agree to reduce this power. The takeaway: when compared to the whims of the Electoral College, the popular vote – i.e., your vote – means as little as toilet paper flushed down a DC shitter.
But that’s not the only reason why the 2000 election should be an object lesson on the futility of voting in America. Given the amount of fraud that occurred that year, the ballots might have actually been used as toilet paper. Republicans in the key battleground state of Florida – led by Governor Jeb Bush, George W.’s brother – sought to cinch the election for the GOP. Journalists uncovered a range of dirty tricks, including:
… a “scrub list” of 173,000 names targeted to be knocked off the Florida voter registry by a division of the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flaw-ridden list that included purported “felons” provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties. Early in the year, the company, ChoicePoint, gave Florida officials a list with the names of 8,000 ex-felons to “scrub” from their list of voters. But it turns out none on the list were guilty of felonies. (Source)
Other voter blocs – who would have cast Democratic ballots – were hindered as well: black students who had registered to vote were not listed as eligible, Haitian-Americans were not given assistance in their native Creole language, and journalists and community leaders noted an “unusually high presence of Florida highway patrolmen in black precincts” in addition to roadblocks in black neighborhoods.
These and other irregularities prompted a statewide ballot recount, working its way to the Supreme Court, which ordered the election result recount in Florida halted and, “by a vote of 5 to 4, effectively handed the presidency to Bush” (Waldman, 2016, p. 175). The rationale given by the court was illogical:
The Court reasoned that different counties’ varying standards for conducting recounts and tallying votes violated the Fourth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. It was implausible enough that the conservative justices used such a novel, elastic interpretation. After all, states, not the federal government, have plenary power over the method of voting for president. If differences among counties are unconstitutional, what about differences between states? (Waldman, 2016, p. 175)
The votes of millions of Americans were invalidated by Supreme Court Justices making decisions based not on logic, but personal politics. The justices from the majority rule each had a conflict of interest in reaching a decision that would elect Bush:
On the eve of the election Sandra Day O’Connor had made a public statement that a Gore victory would be a personal disaster for her. Clarence Thomas’s wife was so intimately involved in the Bush campaign that she was helping to draw up a list of Bush appointees more or less at the same time as her husband was adjudicating on whether the same man would become the next President. Finally, Antonin Scalia’s son was working for the firm appointed by Bush to argue his case before the Supreme Court, the head of which was subsequently appointed as Solictor-General. (Foster, 2010, p. 80)
The 2000 election was a revelatory moment for the sham that is American democracy. The Electoral College disregarding the popular vote was bad enough, but it got worse: the election was decided on partisan lines by the unelected members of the Supreme Court, who chose to end a recount that would have proven Gore the winner. I repeat: the election was chosen by the Supreme Court, whose members are not elected by the people in any way, shape, or form. (Sure, the public has nominal oversight on Supreme Court appointments via hearings conducted by their representatives, but a president – who makes appointments to the Court – will only ever nominate someone of the same political party. Even if a nominee is rejected by Congress, eventually one from the president’s party – chosen specifically to rubber-stamp party ideology – will be confirmed.) The takeaway: why vote when unelected officials have the power to override your vote based on their own political whims?
Part 2: Politicians are More Accountable to Interest Groups than to Ordinary Voters
Maybe none of the aforementioned deterrents to voting apply to you. Maybe you live in a district with a complete absence of gerrymandering and similar voter manipulation techniques. Maybe your views line up exactly with those of one of the two major political parties. Maybe it doesn’t bother you that the Electoral College reserves the right to say “fuck it” and vote contrary to popular opinion. There is still an overflowing cornucopia of reasons why your vote is pointless. And this cornucopia is full of the money of the elite.
Campaigning is expensive work. Politicians start raising money – primarily through their own political action committee (or “PAC”) – long before an election:
Political scientists often speak of the ‘money primary,’ in which candidates first have to raise certain campaign sums to prove their viability in an election. Media attention to fundraising helps solidify elite perceptions about which candidates actually have a chance to win. A candidate’s hopes for success in a party primary and the general election almost always depend on raising sufficient funds, first to convince elites and then to promote the candidate in the media and, as necessary, attack his opponent. (Hasen, 2016, p. 42)
And while presidential candidates like Sanders and Donald Trump made headlines for accumulating a significant amount of money from many small donors, the norm – and that which most candidates actively court – is the opposite: a handful of massive contributions. As The Atlantic observes, “despite growth in the number of small donors over time, the money they give has made up a smaller and smaller share of total individual contributions over the last two decades… the power of the internet is no match for the unlimited giving allowed by today’s lax campaign-finance rules.”
While the small donations may come from any and all segments of society, the big donors do not:
They are not just a random slice of the American population. Professor Nick Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago notes that ‘with respect to demographics, surveys… all have found that individuals who contribute at least $200 to federal candidates are ‘overwhelmingly wealthy, highly educated, male, and white… In 2012, these donors amounted to just 0.4% of the population, but supplied 64% of the funds received by candidates from individuals. (Hasen, 2016, p. 43)
Indeed, Kenneth Vogel of Politico notes that, “in 2014, the top one hundred donors to Super PACs gave more money than the 4.75 million other donors to federal campaigns, combined” (Waldman, 2016, p. 225). And despite their stereotypical love affair with big business, it is not just Republicans who are indebted to contributions from these rich white guys:
A recent study by Professor Adam Bonica of Standford and his co-authors found Democrats much more reliant on big donors (and less on organized labor) than one would think from looking at the parties’ rhetoric. The authors conclude that ‘while it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the Democrat’s reliance on campaign contributions from the wealthy, it does likely preclude a strong focus on redistributive policies. (Hasen, 2016, p. 43).
So if candidates need money in order to win elections, and a very specific segment of the population (rich white guys) are the ones who provide the majority of that money, how responsive do you think these candidates will be to those outside of that specific segment? In other words, despite what comes out of their candidates’ mouths, the Dems aren’t committed to taxing the rich to benefit the poor because the rich are the people that are major contributors to Democratic campaigns. Therefore, if you’re voting Democrat because of the party’s commitment to wealth redistribution and helping the poor, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Who do we have to thank for the decadent influence of big money in politics? Our old, anti-democratic friend, the Supreme Court. As academic Timothy Kuhner observes, “between 1976 and 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down a host of campaign finance reforms, thus removing obstacles to the conversion of economic power into political power.” This democratic rape climaxed in 2010 with the Citizens United case, through which the Supreme Court overturned a century of restrictions banning corporations and unions from spending all they wanted to elected candidates.
The Court held that so long as businesses and unions didn’t just hand their money to the candidates, which would be corrupt, but instead gave it to outside groups that were supporting or opposing the candidates and were technically independent of their campaigns, they could spend unlimited amounts to promote whatever candidates they chose. To reach the verdict, the Court accepted the argument that corporations had the same rights to free speech as citizens… [Consequently,] more and more of the money flooding into the elections was spent by secretive nonprofit organizations that claimed the right to conceal their donors’ identities. Now… donors gave what came to be called dark money to nonprofit “social welfare groups that claimed the right to spend on elections without disclosing their donors. As a result, the American political system became awash in unlimited, untraceable cash. (Mayer, 2016, p. 227-8).
Kuhner notes that, “through Citizens United, corporations have partaken alongside wealthy individuals in the right to spend unlimited funds to influence the national political consciousness.” Indeed, “in the five years after Citizens United, $2 billion was spent on campaigns by supposedly independent committees… six hundred million dollars of which was ‘dark money,’ spent by nonprofit groups that claimed the right not to disclose their donors at all” (Waldman, 2016, p. 221).
In her investigations of the influence of the billionaire conservative activist Koch brothers, Jane Mayer uncovered influence buying and, more alarming, an attempt to hide it from public knowledge.
[Charles], his brother David, and their allies had contributed over $760 million to mysterious and ostensibly apolitical nonprofits such as the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and the TC4 Trust. From there, money had been disbursed to dozens of other nonprofits, some of which were little more than mailboxes, which had then spent the funds promoting the donors’ political interests both directly in elections, and indirectly in countless other ways. As for the transparency of Charles Koch’s foundations, two of them had made grants of nearly $8 million between 2005 and 2011 to DonorsTrust, whose stated purpose was to mask the money trail. (Mayer, 2016, p. 377).
The Koch influence is on the rise. In the 2016 election cycles, the Koch network aims to spend $889 million, “more than twice what the network had spent in 2012… rivaling the record $1 billion that each of the two major political parties [is] expected to spend” (Mayer, 2016, p. 377).
Part of what makes the Koch brothers’ influence so disturbing is that they aren’t content with merely influencing politicians. Mayer found that they are unilaterally usurping power from the Republican National Committee (RNC) by investing in voter database technology to track “250 million U.S. consumers and over 190 million active voters,” through which the brothers’ “political operatives could then determine which voters were ‘persuadable’ and bombard them with personalized communications” (2016, p. 368). In 2015, Katie Walsh, the RNC chief of staff, voiced concern that “a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone have control over who gets access” to such data. A “source close to the RNC” added that “it’s pretty clear that they don’t want to work within the [Republican] party but want to supplant it.” Analysts outside of the RNC concurred: Lisa Graves, head of the Center for Media and Democracy, observed that “they’re building a party from outside to take over the [Republican] party (Mayer, 2016, p. 369). The ability of the Koch brothers to essentially hijack the Republican party shows that our public representatives are subject to power plays from private economic elites. The takeaway: what good is your vote if the political party you vote for is itself steered by the interests of private actors?
Of course, this argument assumes that you vote Republican. However, the influence of money in American politics affects both parties. Consider the aftermath of the 2010 “SpeechNOW” case ruling, where the court held that:
“If independent spending cannot corrupt, then contributions funding such spending cannot corrupt either,” and “struck down the contribution limit to independent PACs… and so was born the ‘Super PAC’: a political action committee that can accept unlimited contributions to fund independent ads supporting or opposing federal candidates… The Federal Election Commission soon ruled that corporations and labor unions could give unlimited sums as well. (Hasen, 2016, p. 33)
In contrast to corporations – which we all know favor Republican candidates – those labor unions are assuredly pouring money into the Dem’s pockets like concrete into a pork barrel pavement project.
Indeed, if you had any delusions about the Democrats being the Noble Party, you better call the waiter for your reality check:
During the healthcare debacle of 2009, the nexus between big corporate money and Democratic behavior became manifest… Obama gave operational control of healthcare legislation to Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. His fundraising prowess is legendary: Baucus received $4 million between 2003 and 2008 from the healthcare industry that his committee has jurisdiction over. As soon as the committee’s deliberations began, Baucus declared a single-payer solution “off the table.” Whether or not single-payer had a realistic chance of becoming law, by excluding it as leverage from the outset, Baucus unilaterally disarmed any possibility of concessions from the healthcare industry. The resulting bill mollified all the major healthcare interests, including the insurance industry and Big Pharma. (Lofgren, 2012, p. 191)
So much for the renowned Democratic support for The Little Guy.
More recent developments also illustrate the avaricious nature of Democrats: in the run-up to Hillary Clinton announcing her candidacy for the 2016 presidential elections, she was making up to $200,000 in individual speaking engagements that were paid for by companies like Fidelity, KKR, and Goldman Sachs. In some cases, reporters were denied information on who paid for a Clinton speaking engagement, resulting in unattributable money put directly into the pocket of a presidential candidate without oversight. Sounds legit, right? Tell me again how Koch and the Republicans are like, soooooooo evil, whereas the Dems are beyond reproach.
Did the public want Hillary as a 2016 candidate, or did the Clinton Fundraising Machine force her upon us like a drunken divorcée at a T.G.I. Friday’s Ladies Night? A common refrain in the 2016 election has been that Hillary is uninspiring at best, and disturbingly deceitful at worst – but that she is the Lesser of Two Evils. It wouldn’t be the first time that the public got an unsavory choice in candidate simply because Big Business decreed it:
Money matters even when it does not dictate the outcomes of elections… Newt Gingrich got a second (and third and fourth) shot at the Republican presidential nomination not because it was what most Republican voters want, but because it was what [his financial backer] Sheldon Adelson wanted. Meg Whitman got her chance to convince Californians that she would be a better governor than Jerry Brown [in the 2010 California gubernatorial election] only because she had millions of dollars to burn on her campaign. No doubt thousands of other Californians were equally convinced that they would be good governors, but they did not have $140 million to buy that chance. (Hasen, 2016, p. 7)
In other words, money dictates the candidates voters have to choose from. This makes your vote irrelevant because it is often the people who fund candidates’ campaigns that make or break a campaign, pushing aside any considerations of which candidate has the most sensible policies or is best for the country. The only options a voter has are candidates that have been vetted and approved by moneyed interests; this much is proven simply by these candidates financially surviving to the end of the election season. The takeaway: unless you yourself are wealthy, then a political choice among stooges of the wealthy is no choice worth making.
“But,” you might interject, “all you’ve shown is the amount of money that goes in to politics. You haven’t shown that these rich bastards get anything out of their donations. You haven’t proved that politicians are more responsive to the elite once they’re elected and in office.” Allow me to pull an obese, gluttonous rabbit out of my tattered hat. Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page coauthored an academic study on government responsiveness, finding that, “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States… Both [political] parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.” I cannot emphasize enough that this is not an opinion piece; it is a statistical study. It proves – with numbers and math and stuff – that, after politicians are elected, they continue to serve the interests of Big Business to the exclusion of the general population.
The avaricious gophers linking Big Biz to Capitol Hill are a legion of lobbyists who dress like diplomats and talk like used-car salesmen. UC Irvine professor Richard Hasen observes that “the important money-in-politics action happens in steakhouses and on golf courses all around Washington D.C., where lobbyists – often former senators, members of congress, or staffers – do their ingratiation and secure their access… by bundling campaign contributions and by using personal connections” (2016, p. 5).
In the old days, political parties offered a standardized menu to lobbyists:
Golfing or coffee with congressional leaders, or even the president, in exchange for six- or seven-figure donations… These days, such soft power is banned, but access continues to be sold. Presidential campaigns offer it to those who bundle large amounts of campaign contribution. (“Bundlers” are people who collect checks from others for the campaign to reach a certain goal, usually in the mid- to high six figures.) The Center for Public Integrity reported that big Obama bundlers ‘had broad access to the White House for meetings with top administration officials and glitzy social events.’ (Hasen, 2016, p. 48-9)
Lobbyists’ access to politicians is not limited to presidential candidates; they exert a pernicious influence in legislature as well. Hasen notes that there are “two means by which money can shape legislative outcomes. First, money can influence who is elected to office, which in turn affects legislative outcomes. Second, money often buys access and cooperation, permitting those with wealth or the lobbyists representing them, to affect legislative policy” (2016, p. 54).
Let’s put things into perspective with a few case studies. Take, for instance, the curious timing of business-friendly legislation that Lindsey Graham defended as being For the Good of the People:
When Las Vegas megadonor Sheldon Adelson began throwing around tens of millions of dollars to push legislation to ban Internet gambling in order to protect his billion-dollar casino interests, it wasn’t long before Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a bill to ban Internet gambling. When asked about the curious coincidence of timing, Graham said his Southern Baptist constituents in South Carolina shared Adelson’s aversion to Internet gambling, so there was no quid pro quo. This may be so, but Graham has held federal elective office since 1995 [with online gambling revenue approaching $1 billion as early as 1998], and yet he felt no driving urge to introduce such legislation until 2014, precisely when Adelson began showering him with money. (Lofgren, 2016, p.68)
Consider also the U.S. Chamber of Commence, a massive lobbying group that successfully pressured Republican congressmen and George W. Bush to approve the 2005 Class Action Fairness Act, which “forces most big civil cases into federal courts, where judges tend to be friendlier to business defendants” (Katz, 2015, p. 129). This development was merely a continuation of a long war fought by the Chamber to vote out judges supported by trial lawyers, labor unions and the Democratic Party and install new judges sympathetic to insurance companies, multinational corporations and the Republican Party.” It’s worth noting that legislation like this is harmful not just to ordinary citizens who vote Democrat, but to everyone – John Q. Republicans included – without a vested interest in the success of Big Business; even Republicans benefit from lower insurance premiums.
Finally, consider gun control, a trendy topic of late. Most of us are aware of the National Rifle Association’s influence in blocking gun control reform in America. What is not common knowledge, however, is how the organization exerts pressure beyond its direct financial lobbying of about $3 million per year:
The NRA wields considerable indirect influence via its highly politically engaged membership, many of whom will vote one way or another based on this single issue. The NRA publicly grades members of Congress from A to F on their perceived friendliness to gun rights. Those ratings can have a serious effect on poll numbers and even cost pro-gun control candidates a seat. (Source)
The result is a political behemoth that blocks even the most common sense legislation for the public good.
Federal funding for Center for Disease Control (CDC) research has saved lives from measles, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and motor vehicle accident. But the NRA-supported Dickey Amendment, a 20-year-old law banning any federal research on gun violence, “has effectively silenced researchers at both the CDC and National Institutes of Health for conducting any comprehensive studies on what causes violence — and what can be done to prevent it — since 1996.” Think about this for a second… the NRA is so politically entrenched that, for twenty years, it’s been able to block life-saving research on the chance that the findings might make the controversial allegation that guns are not as safe as teddy bears.
These are only a few small planets in the galaxy of special interests with outsized political clout. (I don’t have the energy or sanity to get into the Jewish Lobby, which has been instrumental in securing annual gifts of 3 billion dollars from the U.S. to Israel, despite Jews constituting less than 2 percent of the American population.) The common theme is that special interests are able to pressure congressmen into passing legislation that goes against the good of the public. But why not cut out the middleman? Indeed, the trend of late has been for Congress to pass the legislation-writing process entirely to lobbyists:
Since 2011, the House of Representatives has “reduced the number of [Congressional] committee staff members by almost 20 percent” (Lofgren, 2016, 66-7). This has resulted in the outsourcing of bill writing from legislative experts on staff to “lobbyists, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the legislative drafting arm of the corporate America.” (Lofgren, 2016, p. 67)
Thus, moneyed interests are writing the laws we elect Congressmen to write. This is a serious dereliction of duty on behalf of the politicians we elect to represent us. But nobody is talking about it; the public is apparently sleepwalking through politics.
Or in a state of sleep paralysis, in which you wake up, unable to move, perceiving world around you as a distorted hallucination. Sufferers describe the sensation and complete lack of control as terrifying. This is analogous to what legislators are willingly doing to American politics: both they – and by extension the public they represent – are watching impotently as politics are possessed by the cold demon of Big Business. And the public can do nothing but watch as business interests become more entrenched. (Of course, this analogy assumes – perhaps quixotically – that the public can tear themselves away from the Kardashians long enough to comprehend what the fuck is really going on in politics beyond the occasional viral sound bite.)
Recall the Gilens and Page study, mentioned earlier:
It makes very little difference what the general public thinks. The probability of policy change is nearly the same whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change. By contrast, a proposed policy change with low support among economically-elite Americans (one out of five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four out of five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.” (Source)
Recent research by professor Michael Barber supports these claims. Barber “looked at the connection between individual donors and the candidates they support found that the candidates tend to reflect the views of those individuals who support them financially” (Hasen, 2016, p. 47). The takeaway: why vote when your vote has been statistically proven to mean nothing when compared to someone richer than you?
There is no hope of this status quo changing anytime soon: “a recent study by Daniel Tokaji and Renata Strause found that some members of Congress worry that if they take stands opposed by large donors, they may face large outside spending against them in the next election” (Hasen, 2016, p. 47). In fact, Big Biz is becoming more entrenched in politics as time goes on: Inglehart observes that “the rich have used their privilege to shape policies that further increase their concentration of wealth, often against the wishes and interests of the middle class.” Worse than this status quo simply becoming more reinforced, the continued invasion of money in politics has the potential to the change the status quo in favor of worse inequality: “an influx of campaign funds going to politicians who are going to be more favorable to the wealthy when there’s an increase in inequality might be just enough to flip a district that once elected a moderate Democrat into one electing a Republican.” In other words, elites are increasingly realizing the benefits to their personal finances of funding local Republican politicians who, without these contributions, would not have had the resources to successfully campaign and get elected. And when they do get into office, they’ll be scratching the backs of the big wigs who put them there long before they throw a bone to the little guys who couldn’t afford to donate.
Thus, as we’ve seen, money corrupts politicians both when they are campaigning for election and also during their time in office. However, the greasy tentacles of greed reach out to strangle democracy even after a politician leaves office. For retiring lawmakers, the incentive is high to pass through what is termed the “revolving door” and get hired in the very same industries they spent their congressional career passing laws to regulate. With their personal and professional contacts on Capitol Hill, these former lawmakers are able to use their political knowledge and connections to lobby former congressional colleagues to enact legislation favorable to their new employer. Hasen notes that “half of retiring senators become lobbyists, many with seven-figure salaries, and lobbyists who used to work for a U.S. senator see their income fall by nearly a quarter when that senator retires” (2016, p. 6). According to research by the Republic Report, when a congressman becomes a lobbyist, he gets, on average, a 1,452% pay raise.
The revolving door is dangerous to democracy. The worst case scenario for the general public is called “regulatory capture,” when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. (As you might imagine, that is the best-case scenario for the regulated industry.) But I’m sure that, given the ethical standards to which we all know American politicians hold themselves, it would be unthinkable that many lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would callously exploit the American people simply to fill their own pockets…
No, of course it happens, all the fucking time. And not just with lowly Congressional reps, but with presidential cabinet members as well. In July 2015, Eric Holder rejoined Covington & Burling, the law firm at which he worked before becoming U.S. Attorney General. The law firm’s clients have included many of the large banks Holder declined to prosecute for their alleged role in the financial crisis. Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi opined that “this is probably the single biggest example of the revolving door that we’ve ever had.” And it happened right under the nose of the Democratic golden boy, Barack Obama. Hope and Change, huh? The takeaway: why vote, when those you chose to elect will support the financial interests of the private sector instead of the pubic well-being?
Part 3: Americans Vote with Misinformation and Ignorance
Why aren’t more people outraged about America’s backwards election rules and anti-democratic culture of lobbyists? Because Americans are fucking idiots. This final section will posit that voting is pointless because, if you – as an informed voter – want to make positive change in the American political system, your voice will be drowned out by the legion of uninformed voters who chose their political candidates based off of superficial or illogical information.
Princeton’s Larry Bartels observes that “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics.” I’m going to share why. In Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, author Rick Shenkman answers the title question with some facts about the stupidity of the average American. For example, a majority of Americans supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion incorrectly believed that the invasion was in response the September 11 attacks. 60 percent of Americans are unable to identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court. A majority of American voters in 2010 incorrectly believed that Obama raised taxes on the middle class during his first two years in office (when, in fact, he lowered them for 95 percent of Americans). Most ridiculously, millions of Americans once believed that Obama was in fact born in Kenya (2016, pp. 9-10).
There has been a significant amount of research probing the idiocy of the American people. In 1960, the authors of The American Voter found that “most voters cast their ballots primarily on the basis of partisan identification (which is often simply inherited from their parents), and that independent voters are actually the least involved in and attentive to politics.” Similarly, the 1950 academic theory called the “Michigan Model” explained voters’ choices based on party affiliation, which is “generally stable, formulated by outside social influences, including parents, family members and others in one’s sociological spectrum.” Making logical choices based on what is best for America as a whole takes a backseat to how you were raised. This is ridiculous. Choosing whom to support based on nostalgia is fine when we’re talking about football. But choosing the leader of the free world based on who caused your dad to yell at the TV less?
Why do human beings default to such superficial voting patterns? In Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, Shenkman discusses the involuntary, biological processes that prevent humans from making logical choices at the subconscious level:
Social science studies show that when we feel comfortable with someone, we convince ourselves that we know them… Why do we think we know our politicians well? One of the most important reasons is that we can see them. Seeing them on television gives us the illusion of intimacy, which in in turn makes us think we are in a good position to read them, when actually we aren’t. (2016, p. 43-4)
This instinctual trait has a nefarious influence on our impression of politicians. For example, in American politics incumbents are very unlikely to lose an election: In the twentieth century, only three elected presidents were voted out of office when they stood for reelection. Does this mean that, in every single case, the incumbent was better suited to lead the country than his opponent? Probably not. More likely, people just vote for the Devil You Know. Consider the cultural narrative of incompetence around George W. Bush’s first term, and that he was nevertheless reelected in 2004.
Or consider how the American public reacted to the June 1972 Watergate break-in that ultimately ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. 1972 was an election year in which Nixon was the incumbent. Increasingly, it became quite obvious that responsibility for the break-in went to the highest levels of government. However, historian Keith Olsen concluded that the “scandal played no perceptible role in the casting of votes in the 1972 election” (Shenkman, 2016, p. 102).
The legacy of JFK is a particularly striking example of the brain’s inability to objectively evaluate politicians:
When Americans are asked – today – to name the greatest presidents of the United States, they routinely mention Kennedy among the top three. This is difficult to understand. Any fair estimate of his legacy is that it was modest. The only major legislation he got passed was a tax cut lowering the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent. His foreign policy consisted of one out-and-out disaster (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which had to be abandoned); one near-disaster (the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he successfully defused but inadvertently triggered, partly as a result of a flawed performance at a summit months earlier with the Soviet leader, who concluded that Kennedy could be bullied); and a disaster-in-waiting (Vietnam, to which Kennedy sent 16,000 “advisors”). The civil rights laws, with which he was closely associated, were actually passed by Lyndon Johnson. (Shenkman, 2016, p. 47)
Moreover, in his private life, Kennedy was a notoriously immoral man. While Bill Clinton’s presidency ended because he attempted to cover up a single blowjob, JFK covered up dozens of trysts. He once used Secret Service for the sole purpose of guarding the door when he was occupied with two interns at once. Adding insult to injury, he even had affairs in his wife’s private bedroom. But he was a very generous man: not content to accumulate blowjobs solely for himself, he cajoled his 18-year-old secretary to blow his senior staff and family, all while he watched. Did someone say Missile Crisis?
Why then, despite this questionable legacy, is JFK so revered? Because “the images of him in our head are compelling and positive and mythical.” Also, because “around 50 percent of our brain is devoted to visual tasks, leading us to trust images as good sources of information… consequently Kennedy cannot be considered apart from his images” (Shenkman, p. 48). This abundance of flattering images is due in large part to the fact that Kennedy had a “special arrangement” with the media, who refused to print stories of his infidelities. Given this lack of bad press, in combination with his media narrative as “an icon of twentieth-century post-war America,” it’s no coincidence that his lifestyle was termed “Camelot.” In short, we overlook the fact that he was a mediocre president and an immoral man because, well, he was just so damn dashing.
Social science research shows that humans make predictable choices based on arbitrary stimuli. As Shenkman notes, “many people – perhaps even a majority – are apparently strongly influenced by their gut response to a static and meaningless facial feature. As other studies show, they see a broad jaw and think a person is strong. They see a baby-faced individual and think that person is weak” (p. 62).
In 2005, Todorov et al. designed a study in which subjects were briefly shown a picture of congressional election candidates, whom the subjects had not previously seen nor had any knowledge of, and asked which candidate seemed more competent. After these tests, Todorov et al. found that the candidates judged more competent generally won their elections in real life. In other words, inferences of competence based solely on facial appearance predicted the outcomes of U.S. congressional elections better than chance (e.g., 68.8% of the Senate races in 2004) and also were linearly related to the margin of victory. A candidate’s facial features are thus correlated with winning elections, suggesting that voters make decisions on a superficial, as opposed to critical, basis. In a seperate, 2014 study, neuroscientists built on the work of Todorov et al. by tracking the brain’s amygdala activity to find that subjects distinguished trustworthy from untrustworthy faces in a matter of just 33 milliseconds (Shenkman, 2016, p. 63).
Other experiments have shown the shortcomings of political decision-making:
Social scientists asked people to rate candidates from a photo. Unbeknownst to the subjects in the experiment, their own image was morphed into that of some of the candidates. The finding… was that people favored candidates that looked like themselves… Of course, many factors affect how people vote – from party identification and genetic predisposition to the state of the economy and so on – but these studies don’t give us much confidence that pure reason is playing much of a role in the decision. (Shenkman, 2016, p. 63)
If it’s disturbing that voters can make subconscious and illogical decisions based on physical appearance, just wait; it gets much worse. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have linked even stranger phenomena to political outcomes. Using research methodology, they have linked voter behavior to the outcomes of football games, droughts, and even shark attacks. Bartel observes that, when times are bad, people consistently vote against the political incumbents in office (Shenkman, 2016, p. xvi). The inference is that people choose to punish candidates in response to bad things happening to them and their community, even when the “bad things” are not within a government’s control. Obviously, this is not logical behavior. But it occurs to such an extent that it has become predictable.
Even things that are within a government’s control, such as the economy, are not correctly understood by a significant amount of voters. For example, studies of economy-driven voting almost invariably find that voters are strongly influenced by economic conditions during the election year, or even some fraction of it, but mostly ignore how the economy performed over the rest of the incumbent’s term. This has been evident in the last ten years: Obama inherited the economy which the Bush administration labored to send down the tubes, yet people blame Barack and not Bush for the country’s financial troubles. This misperception was a key reason that the Dems did so poorly in the 2010 midterm elections.
The public voting based on misunderstood economic matters is not a new phenomenon. For example, in a 1988 survey a majority of respondents who described themselves as strong Democrats said that inflation had “gotten worse” over the eight years of the Reagan administration; in fact, it had fallen from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988. Conversely, a majority of Republicans in a 1996 survey said that the federal budget deficit had increased under Bill Clinton; in fact, the deficit had shrunk from $255 billion to $22 billion. Factually incorrect information like this has such sticking power because it reinforces what people want to hear. Republicans want to believe that Obama and Clinton mangled the economy, just as Dems want to hate Reagan.
Indeed, experiments at Yale University by social scientist Dan Kahan demonstrate that we generally don’t evaluate issues on the merits or privilege the truth. Instead, “we rely on intuition,” which is often “self-serving” (Shenkman, 2016, p. 107). Thanks to what’s known as the Perseverance Bias, humans have an “inclination to stick with an opinion once we have enunciated it. Studies show that once we have formed an opinion we don’t easily give it up – not even after contradictory evidence surfaces that undermines our position” (Shenkman, 2016, p. 110). Similarly, Social scientists Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban published a 2014 book showing that nearly all of our political opinions reflect our self-interest: “we engage in unconscious rationalization to justify our political positions, portraying our own views as wise, benevolent, and principled while casting our opponents’ views as thoughtless and greedy.” In other words, not only do Americans disregard the truth when making political decisions, due to psychological quirks we won’t change our misinformed beliefs even when presented with accurate information. On top of that, we go so far as to actively disparage the accurate information that contradicts our misinformation.
The takeaway: the human brain is predisposed to make superficial, illogical, and flat-out incorrect political decisions. The vast majority of Americans – both conservatives and liberals – vote this way. If you are among the few who actually objectively comprehend the issues and politicians for whom you vote, you are part of a tiny minority and your voice will be drowned out by a nation of cavemen. Why vote when most people pay no attention to the truth?
Of course, this assumes that we’re even presented with the truth as an option to use in making decisions. When it comes to politics, we are not privileged with the truth. Since voters can’t get to know politicians on a personal level, it is the media’s duty to present unbiased information so that the public can make decisions. You’d think that this would have become easier in the last decade, given the plethora of online outlets and social media. However, this is not the case. The media is failing in its duties to educated voters.
The first thing that students learn in journalism school is the importance of objectivity. The second lesson is that the media have a paramount importance in American politics as “gatekeepers” of the news that makes it to the public. For this reason, professional journalists have a very high opinion of themselves and their work. They shouldn’t: the Fourth Estate is being willingly and systematically raped from above and prostituted from within.
The rape is politicians using the media for their own ends. A major study of the 2000 presidential election by Richard Johnston, Michael Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson tracked prospective voters’ responses to changes in the volume and content of campaign ads as well as to news coverage and other aspects of the national campaign. Their analysis suggested that George W. Bush’s razor-thin victory hinged crucially on the fact that he had more money to spend courting the media in battleground states in the final weeks of the campaign.
Similarly, it’s well known that Trump is savvy in his use of the news cycle to further his political ambitions. Although he has nothing but contempt for the media, they sure don’t hesitate to give him an obnoxious amount of airtime. It’s important to remember that he draws support from the kinds of people who feel alienated by relatively progressive outlets like CNN and MSNBC. Thus, these networks’ saturation-level coverage denouncing Trump only consolidates his base by exacerbating their alienation. The same goes for every other major news outlet giving Trump a near-constant stream of free publicity.
This illustrates the failure of the media to adhere to its role as gatekeeper. If they were practicing the principles they learned in “J-school” at Emerson, Columbia, or Ohio, journalists would exercise self-restraint in their coverage of sensational, low-hanging-fruit topics. But, as Pulitzer and Hearst proved a century ago, sensational stories sell. And newspapers are, at the end of the day, businesses.
Indeed, journalists are prostituting themselves and their outlets for dollars and page views. Consider the cozy relationship between reporting and Brand Building. I concede that, simply to survive in a dying-slash-evolving medium, a journalist needs to promote himself and his work as a brand – just as Wesley Lowery has done with himself and his Black Lives Matter reporting. However, the professional necessity of Brand Building does not make the practice morally excusable. Lowery, for instance, is resurrecting Gonzo Journalism by inserting himself into his body of work – particular his coverage of his own arrest while in the field. And then he milks this body of work for book deals. Is this objective, unbiased journalism? When a journalist has simultaneous goals of reporting and increasing their own celebrity, then their work, and the people who consume it, are compromised as sources of objective information. And the public remains ignorant. The takeaway: why vote when you’re voting alongside a public that doesn’t have a source of unbiased information to make decisions with?
Upon whose shoulders do we place the blame for the media’s ineptitude? On the one hand, news outlets of all sizes continue to uncategorically fail in their attempt to provide unbiased news. On the other hand, as Taibbe astutely observes, people don’t want unbiased news. They instead want entertaining stories. Indeed, human beings need to understand the world. As a result, we fit information into subconscious schemas, or mental systems of organizing and perceiving new information, which helps us understands the world and the rapidly changing environments.
Harvard social scientist Howard Gardener studied the traits successful leaders share in common, and found that “their success depended to a great deal on their ability to communicate a compelling story, ‘ narratives that help individuals think and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed” (Shenkman, 2016, p. 135). Politicians exploit this to get themselves elected:
[They] avail themselves of our susceptibility to stories by changing their own stories to suit our desires. If one election year what we seem to want is an outsider, they’ll emphasize milestones in their life story that suggest they’re outsiders. If four years later it seems more opportune for them to present themselves as experienced insiders, they’ll simply rebrand themselves by changing their stories. (Shenkman, 2016, p. 136)
Neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga performed studies on the brain to prove this. His experiments analyzed the way each brain hemisphere reacted to stimuli and showed that the human mind confabulates; that is, we “make up stories to make the world make sense.” He concluded that “our brain is not biased in favor of truth. It is biased in favor of stories that make the world comprehensible. We are so eager to find patterns…. That experiments show we will predict something will happen based on a detected pattern when there’s no pattern at all” (Shenkman, 2016, p. 141). Thus, politicians who weave their policy into a narrative play into voters’ psychological need to have the world explained in a meaningful way, even at the expense of silly little things such as “truth” or “logic.” Again, think back to Donald Trump and his supporters; this observation explains them perfectly. Trump weaves what is – at least to his mainly white, male, working class voter base – a compelling narrative about the loss of American jobs, strength, and prestige (and the need to regain these lost artifacts “to make the country great again”). It doesn’t matter that most of what he says is factually incorrect. And these are the people against which your vote must compete.
This is where the Blame Game between the media and the ignorant public sways against the media once again. News outlets play upon the human need to fit complex information into story-like narratives. The media presents versions of the world through the ‘packaging’ of politicians and events into media narratives. Sometimes, these narratives seem, by all accounts, accurate. George W. Bush probably is a bit of a doofus. Similarly, Obama does reflect a “cool black guy” stereotype. But what about the stranger narratives that, upon reflection, don’t really hold up? What, exactly, caused the media to run with the strange notion that Joe Biden is bumbling and gaffe-prone? Or, more seriously, what about the media’s enthusiastic cheerleading for the build-up to the 2003 Iraq War?
Indeed, media narratives have serious consequences that don’t always reflect objective reality and can manipulate opinion. These narratives can even derail presidential campaigns apropos of nothing. Howard Dean was doing well in the polls in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary until he got a bit carried away during campaigning and ended an impassioned speech with a scream-ish “yeah!” It was not the most composed act, but it was by no means outlandish. In fact, many in attendance at Dean’s speech didn’t even rate the scream as memorable. Nevertheless, the scream became memetic: an AP article reported that cable and broadcast news networks replayed the scream 633 times in the four days following the incident, a number that does not include talk shows and local news broadcasts. The sound clip portrayed Dean as mentally unhinged and marked the end of his campaign.
Would the average American consider a single, raised-voice intonation of the word “yeah” to be a campaign-ending gaffe if the media was not endlessly informing them that this was the case? It seems unlikely. But journalists seized on the incident like a pedophile shark at a Disneyland Long John Silver’s, turning an otherwise unremarkable incident into a ’round-the-clock feeding frenzy simply for a ratings boost which happened to reinforce a pre-existing narrative the media was already trying to force down people’s throats long before the scream: that Dean was a “loose cannon.” Thus, while the media represents an opportunity for Americans to become more informed about political issues, this is not the actual outcome and the masses remain ignorant, leading to a retarded democracy.
In “Uninformed Votes,” Larry Bartels provides “estimates of how well each overall election outcome matched what it would have been if every voter had been fully informed. The average discrepancy between the actual popular vote in each election and the hypothetical outcome if every voter had been fully informed amounted to three percentage points—more than enough to swing a close election.” Lists of such research stretch on and on, all pointing to the same conclusion: human beings are idiots. Or, phrased more academically, a vast number of American voters make political decisions based on criteria that are arbitrary and politically irrelevant to the point of absurdity. Consequently, voting is pointless when a well-reasoned opinion is drowned out by an exponentially larger number of malformed, superficial, instinctual, and illogical opinions. The takeaway: if your fellow voters can be so easily manipulated, and cast votes based on abject ignorance, what worth is your single informed vote?
And to those of you who’ll say that an informed vote is even more important, given that so many are uninformed, the counterargument is simple: if a friend’s basement is flooded, it might be a noble and symbolic act to try to remove the water with a coffee mug. However, this won’t accomplish anything; you’ll be overwhelmed by gallons and gallons of water while scooping out a pint’s worth. Similarly, your one informed vote will be drowned in the deluge of American civil idiocy.
The knee-jerk response to this essay will invariably be along the lines of “all of this makes sense on an abstract, philosophic level. However, the reality is that we need to defeat the menace that is Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. And everyone needs to vote to make this happen.” To which I respond: you miss my point entirely. If the problem was only that that of this essay’s third section – that your fellow voters are uneducated – I would say, “sure, we need every intelligent vote we can get to balance out votes cast in ignorance.” Similarly, if the problem was only that of the first section – that the system by which elections take place is often illogical or corrupt – I’d say, “sure, let’s vote a good guy into office and see if we can change all that.” If it were only one – or even both – of those problems, we’d have a chance – however small – to change things for the better by voting.
The fact is that the problems of political corruption – detailed in the second section of this essay – are, quite simply, immutable. Actually, they’re getting worse as time goes on. No matter how many voters become educated on the issues, and no matter which candidate we choose to vote for, everything to do with American politics is corrupted by the influence of money and big business. Any concerted effort to mobilize voters to change the problems I’ve described would run into the brick wall of the corrupt voting system during the election, followed by Washington’s business-dominated quid pro quo reality after the election. Even if, by some miracle, a president with drastic reform goals was elected, their agenda would never be passed, or even supported, by either political party.
Thus, voting is pointless, an absolute waste of time. It is not a Noble Act, and it is not a Civic Duty. Soldiers don’t die for it. (I could explain how soldiers in fact die meaningless deaths as pawns in geopolitical power plays, rather than for any vague quixotic notion of “freedom,” but it would take another twenty pages.) So don’t vote. If you want to feel fulfilled on November 8, stay home and spend time with your family. If you want to feel like you’re making a difference, volunteer at a homeless shelter. But don’t show up at your local elementary school, press a button, and think you’ve made America – nay, the world – a better place.
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