Friday, November 05, 2004

Let Me Say This About That 

I've been drafting a commentary about this week's US election for a couple days, about what I think happened and how I try to be philosophical about it, and it's gotten longer and longer, so in the interests of getting it done (as if anyone really cares what I think when there are far more informed and passionate commentators out there blogging madly away), I will ruthlessly prune to the most cogent points, and be done with it.

Yes, I was as dumbfounded and disappointed as anyone by the election results. For months, years, millions of us in the US have awaited the chance to pass judgment on the underachiever who got 'elected' four years ago. It's been clear to many of us, and to many others around the world, what a disaster the administration has been. So why did he get re-elected? Why did the 59 million people who voted for him not perceive him as the incompetent, simple-minded, smug buffoon that his detractors saw?

My number one explanation -- and this applies to any election, anytime -- is that the very process of such an election, by reducing the alternatives to two opposing sides, means that the majority of voters vote for whoever is on their side. For millions of Bush voters, this involved issues of 'morality' and 'terrorism' and so on. It may seem astounding, but the simple explanation for the many apparently intelligent people who voted for Bush is that it matters more to them to have someone who is on their side in office -- even if they wouldn't trust that person to, say, manage their personal finances -- than to have someone intelligent who's perhaps *not* on their side. The checks and balances of the three branches of government buffer the dangerous effects of any particular individual. One hopes.

Beyond that, it is useful to keep in mind that elections such as this are determined by those few percentiles in the fuzzy middle who can't make up their minds until the last minute because they don't have any strong opinions about any of the issues that are supposedly in contention. The ones who swing the election are the ones mostly easily swayed by image, and PR. That's why all the vast generalizations about the mood of the public, or the mandate of the electorate, are wishful thinking at best, logical errors at worst.

Yet, why this result? Why now? I can only suggest that Bush got the fuzzy swing voters by appealing to the classic American traits of arrogant self-centeredness, and anti-intellectualism.

I admit to being cynical about politics ever since the 1988 Bush Sr. vs Dukakis campaign. Democratic elections sound nice in theory, but it's really about PR. Democracy may be better than any alternative, but I've never had any great confidence in the combined wisdom of the electorate. People don't pay attention; they're irrational; they vote out of short-term self-interest despite long-term consequences. I've always wondered (maybe this experiment has been done) what the results would be if a general election were held about matters which were verifiable scientific, historical, or mathematical facts. What's the value of pi? Let's vote. How many amendments in the Bill of Rights? Let's vote. Get it wrong, you're disenfranchised.

Or should we live with the combined will of the majority? (I wonder what pi would be.) What does it say about peoples' intelligence that so many 'believe' in Creationism, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary? (Never mind religious and spiritual matters for which there isn't any evidence either way.) Actually, I've seen Jay Leno do person-on-the-street pop quizzes on various topics, and it's astounding how uninformed or uneducated many people are.

My personal answer is to not place too much stock in anything decided by popular elections. It's not a method of determining any kind of 'truth'. (For political purposes, 'truth' is what we've agreed to enshrine in the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Yet, so many are hostile to the ACLU...) My values are elsewhere. I only hope, from election to election, that the result does not hit me where I live...

So, it does worry me worry me that so many US voters, especially the ones who cite 'moral issues' as their primary criterion for making a decision (as if only their own beliefs constitute what is 'moral'), are eager to legislate their morality at the expense of depriving entire classes of fellow citizens their civil rights. Is that what America is about? Since when does "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" apply only to those who share your tastes, or prejudices? In spirit, if not in degree, the 'conservatives' who seek to deny ways of life they do not approve of are closer to the terrorists who would destroy what they disapprove of, than the founding fathers who sought to build a nation that embraced all ways of life. The terrorists who attack the US think they are defending morality too.

So now, the election is over; the time has changed and it is darker now; the World Fantasy Con, the last con of the year of any significance, is past; at work we've passed our CMMI assessment and everything is calm now; and I even finished 'playing' Myst IV last week. So many transitions. Time to move on. I'm going to read some books.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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