I wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid. I read medical textbooks, dissected frogs, watched E.R. – I know more about human anatomy and surgical technique than probably 95% of people who aren’t actually doctors. Remember this, it will be relevant shortly.

The world of politics is an incubator for toxicons – after all, a politician is more or less required to attempt an understanding of hundreds of very complicated organizations, protocols and relationships better than specialists in those fields could honestly claim to. That’s bad. That is, in fact, terribly bad. Still, at least most legislators hold advanced degrees of some sort and have the opportunity to devote themselves to building at least a passing familiarity with the issues about which they have to make decisions. Most politicians are far more qualified to do their jobs than voters are to elect them.

A voter’s job is to weigh the merits of candidates’ stated policies against their probable sincerity and how effective they would probably be at pursuing them. Right? A responsible voter would have to take ownership of every aspect of this duty. So let’s quiz one of them:

“Mr. Voter, why did you vote for Susan Candidate?”

“I support her fiscal policies and her stances on crime, welfare, and education. She seems honest, and I think she will be an effective representative.”

“I see. Presumably your multiple post-doctoral degrees in macroeconomics, sociology and political history qualify you to judge the merits of Ms. Candidate’s policies. Still, even assuming your decades of experience as a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist have equipped you to assess the honesty of a career politician, are you really so familiar with the personalities and power dynamics within our legislature to assert that she will be more effective at representing your interests than her opponents would be?”

Hyperbole? Not really. Just because a particular type of decision is very important and has to be made on a regular basis doesn’t mean that pretty much all of that decision’s makers aren’t hopelessly unqualified for the task. Look at the divorce rate in the US, and add to that your own estimate of how many marriages persist unhappily for one reason or another. If we’re that bad at selecting a relationship of equality with people we know intimately, how good could we possibly be at choosing a leader from a pack of strangers?

You, of course, are different. You are an ‘educated voter’. You are socially active, interested in current events, and generally a huge fan of the democratic process. Okay then: the next time you step into the voting booth, close your eyes and imagine yourself on an operating table. You have acute appendicitis and need surgery at once. And there, standing over you with a scalpel you see … me.

Not to worry. I’m an ‘educated surgeon’ – I find medicine fascinating, and I watch ‘House’ religiously. Do I have a medical license, or any experience in actually performing surgery? Nah, but take heart (while you hope I don’t take yours out by mistake), for I am both motivated and sincere. What I’m about to do with that scalpel is the same thing you’re about to do with your ballot: try hard, and hope.

“But wait!” one might cry. “Doing something is still better than doing nothing!” Really? How often is that actually true? For almost all decisions that lie outside our competence, the ‘right answer’ isn’t just hard for us to identify, it’s completely beyond our awareness. Consider these problems, the ‘right answers’, and the answers to which someone like me or you actually has access:

Problem Right Answer Known Options
My laptop keeps freezing Reinstall device drivers for the serial bus input cookie cache system processes thing Format the hard drive, buy a new laptop, learn to use a typewriter
I have a hard time concentrating at work Take nutritional supplements plus a mild amphetamine to compensate for inadequate production of neurotransmitters Drink more coffee, lose job, feel bad about self
I can’t sleep at night Stop drinking espresso after 11:00pm Take drugs, buy a new bed, find religion

 

When you’re hopelessly uninformed, is it really better to do the things that one might realistically do than to simply do nothing at all? Generally speaking, isn’t passionately doing a job that you’re utterly unqualified for not a good idea? Ah, but perhaps politics is different. We are a divided nation, after all. Our choices are clear! One side, at the very least, is evil incarnate! Important principles are at stake; victory is vital, and defeat would spell disaster! This is as true today as it has been for decades – consider those stout fiscal conservatives who rejoiced at the election of Republicans (federal debt rose 20.5% vs. GDP under Regan, 13.1% under Bush I, and 17.1% under Bush II) and despaired at the election of Democrats (fed debt vs. GDP dropped 3.2% under Carter and 8.8% under Clinton). Supporter of gay rights? You’d much rather have a Dem like Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ than a right-wing extremist like GWB, who saw the number of states that perform same-sex marriage go from absolute zero to five (and, briefly, six – the loss of California being attributed to overwhelming support for the Democratic Presidential candidate).

“But wait!” one might cry. “Those politicians weren’t ‘real’ … whatevers. They didn’t do what we thought they’d do!”

Right.

Of course there were other factors in play. The shifting tide of national opinion, changing power structures within the legislature – there have been innumerable times when one could easily say that things would be better for a given cause if it’s so-called supporters weren’t in office. “But wait!” one might cry. “There’s no way anyone could have foreseen that at the time!”

Right.

I’m not the first person to take potshots at the practice of voting. Most of the other potshots, however, are flat-out wrong:

  • “My vote doesn’t matter.” – Of course it does. Study statistics.
  • “The outcome doesn’t matter, nothing ever changes anyway.” – Nonsense. Study history.

Then again, traditional pro-voting arguments are pretty silly too:

  • “It’s your civic duty.” – To express my uninformed prejudices in a way that affects peoples’ lives?
  • “A high turnout is good for democracy.” – Because if there’s one thing better than a few people making bad decisions, it’s a lot of people making bad decisions.

The real problem with the American vote is our attitude towards it. We look at elections as ways of raising to power those people who we think would govern the way we ourselves would – ignoring the fact that, if we’re being honest, we’d govern pretty damn poorly. What if we took a different perspective? What if we viewed our trip to the ballot box as an opportunity to…

…but that’s all the time we have for today. Stay tuned!

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