Friday, December 28, 2007

The Reason for Voter Dissatisfaction

“As the gross tonnage of politics rises, so too does public disenchantment.” —Daniel Henninger

Daniel Henninger contends in this WSJ article that the reason for voter malaise with the current presidential campaign “may be that a Web-stoked media has demoted the office of the presidency itself as an animating idea and elevated the mechanics, the sport, of elections.” He notes that we have far more information available about our candidates than at any point in history, and yet, “The more we know, the less we know.”

Peggy Noonan writes in this WSJ article that we don’t expect a perfect candidate or even a candidate that approaches greatness. Rather, “We just want a reasonable person. We would like a candidate who does not appear to be obviously insane. We'd like knowledge, judgment, a prudent understanding of the world and of the ways and histories of the men and women in it.”

Noonan acknowledges that this is a grown up thought, but Henninger seems to think that voters really don’t really want what Noonan says we want at all. He cites Tony Blair as having opined that with the rise of total and immediate data, “judgment has fallen because less time is available to think.” To bolster his contention that the presidential election has been turned into some sort of sport, Henninger discusses polling data showing that most voters just want to win, regardless of how well a given candidate might govern. But this new obsession, he says, “like most obsessions tends to induce disappointment.”

Here’s how it works. We spend two years with candidates battling it out and everyone watching each play as if the event is some kind of endless Superbowl. Only, at the end of the Superbowl, rings are handed out, and one side basks in glory while the other side lowers its collective head. There’s a lot of talk about the game, but it’s pretty much all over until the following season.

In the sport of presidential election, once the game is over, the task of governing is just beginning. Yes, one side exults while the other side licks its wounds. But then we are set up for disappointment. No candidate, regardless of how good she or he may be, is capable of rising to the level to which our expectations have been built over the election cycle. After a couple of years of reality, we are left hungering for the game of the next election cycle.

Henninger says that “the electorate is being ill-served, and knows it.” They “are not neurotic. They are just deeply annoyed.”

Noonan, for her part, lists the various Democratic and GOP candidates and places them either in the “reasonable” or “not reasonable” category. As with any pundit, her judgment can certainly be challenged. But it is interesting to see who she places in which column and how she justifies these assignments.

I’d like to think that American voters are grown up enough to put the weight of their support behind the ideals Noonan espouses, but I think Henninger may actually be more correct. It seems that the main thing that matters to many of them is whether their side wins, not whether the person elected next November is actually suited to govern our nation well.

On the other hand, Jonah Goldberg suggests in this NRO article that our hyper-extended presidential campaign simply “provides a nice reminder of how unimportant politics really are.” Although politics are important, and the average voter is very dissatisfied with the federal government and our federal politicians at present, Goldberg contends, “Very few people define their lives politically — a fact for which we should all be grateful.”

For years there has been nearly continuous hand wringing about how disinterested and uninvolved Americans are in politics. Of this, Goldberg says, “There’s merit to the complaint; but there’s also truth to the notion that Americans understand that the most important stuff lies elsewhere.”

In other words, the ‘voters’ Henninger and Noonan are talking about are mostly the political junkies that really pay attention to politics. The rest of the voters will generate a certain level of concern when necessary. Perhaps their judgment will ultimately prove to be superior to that of the political junkies.

1 comment:

Democracy Lover said...

The WSJ is so often hilarious. The sport of elections is a creation of the mainstream media (including the WSJ) not the Web (by which I assume Henninger means bloggers who don't parrot Republican talking points).

The idea that Peggy Noonan can assert that her desires for a presidential candidate represent those of the majority of Americans is equally ridiculous. If we have descended to the point where simple sanity is all that is required of a President then we are doomed.

The disinterest and disgust with politics that is endemic in this country is not an unintended by-product of an otherwise rational political system. That disinterest and disgust serves the interests of those in power and their sycophants in the press as well. When the media reduces the electoral campaign to the level of a horse race and when a "serious" candidate is defined as one who can raise the most money from corporate special interests, we can be sure that this is intentional.

The American public has very low expectations of our politicians and our political process - and they are right. The wealthy, the large corporations, and their hangers-on have engineered a process that insures that low expectations are the only rational ones. That's what Noonan means when she refers to the "reasonable" candidates - the ones who won't upset the existing apple cart by serving the people.

Blaming it on the people or the bloggers or trying to pretend that the governance of this nation is not really meaningful are all distortions.