Note: I originally wrote this right after the results of the U.S. national election results were in in November. I ended up writing several other articles instead, and just circled back to this now, so please excuse the anachronisms.
There it is. The vote's in. The American people have decided. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, there's been something I've been waiting to get off my chest: none of us are qualified to vote.
I think we all know what we were voting for in this election: control of Congress, control of the Senate, picking the right person to choose the direction this country should head. We also have a VERY good feel for who those people are: the corrupt or stoic overly-qualified first female candidate, and the courageous tell-it-like-it-is outsider / racist buffoon. We also have a good feel for the political parties, and what they're all about, which is why the majority of us never even bother to consider the candidates enough on their own merit to sway from the party line.
We also have a pretty clear vision of what the country will look like if each one is elected. Or do we?
When we pull the proverbial lever in that booth, we'd like to think we are making an informed choice for what we think is "best for the nation." The fact that each side has their own, completely opposite fantasy of what each candidate represents shows how simplistic our visions can be.
The fantasy does have some connection to reality. That is what makes our system work, to the degree that it does. Here are some of the things that the supporters of the "winning fantasy" have chosen:
- To "drain the swamp" of Washington D.C.
- To protect American trade via tariffs, and eschew free trade treaties
- To keep out of international affairs as much as possible, but hit hard when necessary
- To build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, at Mexico's expense, to keep out illegal aliens
- To prevent entry to the United States by any practitioner of Islam (qualified in some yet-to-be-determined way according to perceived terror risk)
- Repeal Obamacare
- Nominate at least 1 Supreme Court justice of conservative bent
- Many, many other things that neither I, nor probably the majority of voters, can remember
The problem is: How do we know these are the things we want? They FEEL right (or wrong). They make some kind of logical sense. But for most of us, that's about as far as we go.
Just for example, let's look at the trade policy issues. Free trade agreements boost the economy. Free trade agreements steal your jobs. Free trade agreements are bad for the environment and lead to slave-like exploitation. Free trade agreements ensure the peaceful cooperation of nations. Yadda yadda yadda. It all sounds good and bad at the same time. I'm a software developer, not an economist or a human rights worker. Why are you coming to me with this question? And, come to think of it, are we just talking about free trade in GENERAL? It makes sense to talk (publicly) about the details of a specific agreement, but pretty ham-fisted to base the next 4 years on the general feeling of 120 million people with at best a vague notion of how all this works.
Or the health system. That beast is so complicated, even healthcare experts have no idea what to do with it. But, sure, repeal it because my monthly payment just went up, or because it just feels too socialist for me.
I know, we're not really voting on specifics here. How could we? One person (per office) to make all the decisions for us for the next 4 years. Each one with their own personal interests, who promise to put our interests first because of an indirect menace of losing their voters the next time around if they break too many promises. So, it seems to me that we should be keeping a close eye on the performance of our representatives. How are we doing with that? I honestly can't think of a single case within my circle where a vote has been changed due to performance, compared to political platform. Elections are so much more about what they say than what they do.
Many political candidates, our president-elect included, choose to liken running the country to running an efficient business. How so? The CEO isn't expected to know everything — just to have the "big vision", and be good at making quick decisions based on the information at hand. To do so, they surround themselves with experts who whittle things down to the pros and cons of a decision, the trade-offs and potential impacts, and let them beat the gavel. (Trump seems to scoff at the "experts", so I'm not sure his approach, but in the end it will probably end up looking something like that anyway) The question is: if we, the public, are the ones making the REALLY BIG decisions, where are our experts? Politicians don't count. Politicians lie to you for their own good. Why isn't there a nation-wide expert presentation of the trade-offs and truths behind each issue we're being consulted on?
Speaking of political lies, we're drowning in them. Even with the latest trends in fact-checking, the winning candidate was allowed to go in front of the whole nation, debate on stage, and present arguments that were given a scorecard of 70% falsehoods, lies and mischaracterizations. Even the "honest" candidate, Hillary Clinton (who, by the way, is officially considered the untrustworthy liar) gets a C- score, with 30% "wrong". And the fact that both sides can wholeheartedly consider the other side the liar points out the really ugly truth: we just don't know what we're doing!
Well, that's the national elections. As we get "down-ballot" to the more local issues, that's where we can really shine. Things are closer to home. We understand the issues better, they have a bigger direct impact on our lives, and our vote counts so much more, right? Nothing could be closer or more concrete than this:
On the local measures, ok, I can give it my best shot. I must say that they do a bang-up job in providing the full text of the measure, and an executive summary of the pros and cons. Of all my voting experiences, this one gets the highest score. But still, I'm given one summary of why you should vote for and one against each of them. Even in simple black and white, we get a pissing contest: "this measure will ease congestion"… rebuttal: "it is a myth that this will reduce traffic". Sigh. I'll just say yes if I think I can spare the buck.
But look at the votes I'm asked to give for state judges. This is actually a VERY important decision, in terms of local impacts and the face of my community. But I am at a total loss. Unless I go out of my way to really research each candidate (and, let's be honest, what percent of voters really do that? Probably not a majority), I'm basing my vote on whether a "Child Molestation Prosecutor" sounds more capable than a generic "Attorney at Law", or maybe if I think a woman would be better than a man. That can't be a good way for groups to make important decisions.
What to do?
“…democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” — Winston Churchill
"An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people" — supposedly Thomas Jefferson…close enough?
"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." — Franklin D. Roosevelt
"People don't make choices between things. They make choices between descriptions of things."—Michael Lewis on Freakonomics Radio, referring to the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman
"Change the Tool" — DemocracyOS
To me, what is missing more than anything else in our democracy are the tools necessary to make fast, well-informed decisions as a group. I feel this in my bones, so deep that I DON'T TRUST MYSELF TO VOTE.
I have envisioned, and am currently working on, a tool that I think can change that, at least for myself, and hopefully for everyone. I call it The Wikipedia for Debates. It may sound too simplistic to work, but I find it neither simple, nor overly naive of me to trust in this idea. I encourage you to have a look at my other writings on the subject, and especially to give me your questions, doubts, and feedback on the subject.
Most importantly, I can't do this on my own, and do not intend to "own" this in any way, other than to do whatever I can to make it happen. Please spread this idea, pass it on to anyone that feels helpless in the face of misinformation and poor choices, and if you'd like to help, please do!