About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Voting in America: the long view
But this blog entry is not about Shermer’s or Haidt’s views. Rather, it is on some interesting statistics brought up by Shermer in his commentary. According to his data “Republicans defeated Democrats 25 to 20 in the 45 Presidential elections from 1828 to 2004; in the Senate Democrats outscored Republicans 3,395 to 3,323 in contesting 6,832 seats from 1855 to 2006; and in the House, Democrats trounced Republicans 15,363 to 12,994 in the 27,906 seats contested from 1855-2006.”
These are staggering numbers, and it is perhaps worth pondering them for a bit. The obvious contrast, and the one Shermer wanted to point out, is that while Republicans are (much) better at winning presidential elections, on average they tend to lose in both chambers of congress (albeit by a far smaller margin than the presidentials). This immediately suggests that Americans want a president who is perceived to be strong and tough, a “commander in chief,” as they say, someone who can firmly answer that famous call on the red phone at 3 o’clock in the morning. (This, mind you, is a decision made on the appearance of toughness, not substance: just remember that an actual decorated war veteran, John Kerry, lost to a quasi-draft dodger like George W. Bush.)
On the other hand, Americans seem to trust the task of legislating more to politicians whose social and economic agenda is progressive, or at least moderate. These are the very same people who brought us all those things for which liberals should justly be proud, and that conservatives hate with gusto: social security, medicare, labor laws, and so forth. (There are, of course, exceptions here too: think of the Newt Gingrich Republicans winning on the impetus of the so-called “contract with America.”)
We are seeing a similar situation again this year, where Democrats are poised to make large gains in both the House and the Senate, based on the mess the Republicans have managed to produce during the past eight years, especially in terms of failing to protect the social net and squandering billions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich, a black hole of a useless war, and now a massive bailout of the financial markets. And yet, Obama and McCain are in a virtual dead heat, with Obama not being able to capitalize on all the discontent reflected in the overwhelming majority of voters saying the country is definitely heading in the wrong direction. (Yes, part of this is of course due to still widespread racism, the Hillary effect, the Palin effect, the blatant lies of the McCain campaign and so forth, but still.)
Why? Why would people adopt such a consistently schizophrenic attitude toward the leadership of their country? I am a rather simple minded voter, I guess, because I tend to be consistent in my choices: if I like the idea of a social net, universal health care, more emphasis on reconstructing America rather than on controlling the world by military might, then I vote for Democrats both in the legislative and in the executive branch (thereby also hoping to get some liberal judges in the judicial branch as well, as a bonus). Yes, I am a partisan, and I dislike the idea of bipartisanship unless it is strictly necessary. The reason for it is because for me ideas are important, not personalities. I couldn’t care less which presidential candidate would make for a better beer buddy, hunting buddy, or kissing partner. I don’t want to go hunting with or kiss my president or vice-president, and I have plenty of good friends to go have a beer with (actually, I prefer martinis). I cringe at the sheer gullibility of middle or lower class people who think that McCain is “one of them” even though the guy is rich beyond their dreams, to the point of not remembering exactly how many houses he owns. I find it sadly risible that someone would find Sarah Palin an appealing candidate because she knows how to “dress” a moose (I just go to the local shop and talk to my butcher).
But it all makes sense, if you think about it. Congress is a much more amorphous, less personal, political body. Most people don’t even know who their Senator or Representative is, and when they do they can often mention only their name and perhaps party affiliation, not much more. When personality is not on the forefront of things people tend to vote according to how much they like the ideas and proposals they hear, the way it should be.
When it comes to the presidency, on the other hand, Americans still display king (and, lately, queen) envy. Even though George Washington refused to be made King George we still have one of the most powerful presidential posts in the world (excluding president-dictators, though lately the line has blurred). It is all about personality and not at all about substance. This explains why people who watched a famous JFK-Nixon debate on television preferred Kennedy, while those who listened on the radio thought Nixon did better. I hated the bastard (Nixon), but the difference, I’m afraid, was due to the good looks of JFK and the all-too-visible sweat on Nixon’s face, not to the substance or even the rhetorical style of what either was saying. And so we keep having presidential election after presidential election where both the media and the public are hypnotized by how tough, likable, kissable, drinkable or whatever, a candidate is, almost regardless of what he (or she) is planning to do once elected.
Hence my modest proposal: let’s get rid of the presidency altogether! Switch to a parliamentary system with a prime minister who is picked by the majority party, even better if coupled with a “shadow government” on the style of the British one. Prime ministers come and go much more easily (and therefore they are bound to do much less damage), the cult of personality is contained, and a parliament is more responsive to the will and interests of the people. It’s time to end once and for all America’s love affair with the idea of the quasi-king commander in chief who can unilaterally declare wars, willfully ignore the law, and blatantly lie to the public -- as long as he is charming enough. Down with the presidency, long live the republic!