politics Archives

December 7, 2006

responsible voting

Last month, around Election Day, I inadvertently provoked an impassioned rant about the ignorance of most voters, particularly those who claimed to be "issues voters" -- that we have only a vague idea, if we have any idea at all, of the daily machinery of government and how it works; that most of us couldn't even tell you what bills our representative had sponsored. Thinking this over later, I realized the basic fallacy in this person's rant as it applies to me.

I am not an "issues voter." Nor do I think I should be one.

I don't have a list of issues with a "for" or "against" tickybox next to each of them. When I read candidates' positions on "the issues", I am not matching their answers with my own. It's not that I have no opinions. It's that I don't have the time or the inclination to discover, research, and form an informed opinion on each question of law as it arises.

Fortunately for me, we have a system of representative democracy. This means that I get to cast my vote for a person whose job it is to stand in for me, and for my neighbors, and do the research and decision-making on our behalf. I have to leave it in this representative's hands to decide what he or she thinks is best for each particular issue, because it will be my representative, not me, casting the vote. I can shelve the political research and get back to the computer programming. Now we are both doing the jobs we want to do.

Since it will be my representative whose decisions will translate into votes cast for or against each of the issues that arise, I need to vote for a representative whose judgment I trust. That means that I have to select the candidate who displays the best decision-making skills compared to his or her fellow candidates. Now there are plenty of people who consider a "good decision" to be a "decision I happen to agree with", even if the person in question arrived at the decision by a completely different logic path. For these people, choosing the candidate whose votes coincide with their opinions is a reasonable selection mechanism.

It's not the selection mechanism for me, though. The candidate who will best represent me is the candidate who thinks through all aspects of an issue, understands that there are very few issues with a clear "right" and "wrong" answer, and displays solid reasoning skills to arrive at a vote on the issue in question. So when I read candidate statements, I'm looking for evidence that they have thought out their positions on The Issues, and can defend them effectively in discussion. (Yes, this makes it very hard for me to choose political candidates. Candidates' issues statements almost never display a decision-making process; the only real way for me to form an opinion is to speak to the candidate, or otherwise watch him or her debate a position.)

So this is my defense of my political ignorance. Yes, I am a reasonably intelligent voter who can't name three bills that my Senator has sponsored, and can't tell you the difference between an Authorization and an Appropriation, and don't know what "cap and trade" means. Yes, that information is out there for me to find, should I choose to invest the time. But my priorities lie elsewhere, because I live in a political system where I am allowed to leave the understanding of these things to others, and concentrate on doing the things that I do best. This is not only a fine example of the economic principle of "comparative advantage"; it is also what living in a representative democracy is all about.

July 15, 2008

New Yorker's impaired sense of irony

There is a massive tempest in a teacup at the moment, concerning this week's New Yorker cover. It is obviously satire; is it in poor taste? Is it a brilliant statement about the absurdity of the charges that have been levelled against Barack Obama? Is it astoundingly tone-deaf? Or are Americans just irony-impaired?

It seems to me that the New Yorker is the irony-impaired party here; perhaps their cartoonist's theme song should be Alanis Morissette's "Ironic", filled as it was with descriptions of things that are not ironic at all. The cover is drawn like any old political cartoon; these are, of course, almost always satire, just as the New Yorker's cover claims to be. The message of most political cartoons is clear - it's putting a satirical spin on some situation its subject was in. The message of, say, this one is to satirize the (real) hypocrisy of the US about global pollution. This one is making fun of Jesse Jackson based upon things he's really said and done.

The problem with the New Yorker cover is that there is no clue, either visual or via a caption, to tell the reader "this is a satire of something that isn't real", or "this is a satire about a bunch of false images of the subject." You're expected to take a leap of comprehension that isn't normal for political cartoons, with no cue to do so. If that cartoon were printed on the cover of some sort of Fox News magazine, without caption, the message would be clear: Obama is a Muslim terrorist-loving America-hating weirdo. As it is, coming from the New Yorker, the reader is left with (not particularly funny) ambiguity, and confusion about what the message is supposed to be. Basically, if the whole image were drawn inside a TV screen box with a logo of "Fair and Balanced" or some such, it would have been a lot funnier, much more understandable, and probably not have caused a whisper of outrage.

So the critics of the critics, in a sense, are right. Americans are terrible at irony. It's just that the New Yorker is right up there with them.

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