Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Selecting a Political Proxy by Proxy

It has become a staple of the election season. Every election cycle, we get treated to a parade of names splashed across the media. Pairings of politicos with papers, pundits, personalities and power-brokers stream across the news-tickers like up-to-the-minute stock quotes. But to what end? The resultant undulation of poll numbers like waves raised by a boulder in a pond tell us that these endorsements actually mean something to the alleged "voting public." But why?

In the small beginnings of representative republics (which America is by design and still purports to be), people generally knew the people that they were sending to office - and vice versa. The typical "campaign" was nothing more than

"I like Chuck the blacksmith. He is pretty wise. We all go to him for advice and counsel anyway. He also knows how to make his point very well... maybe we should send him to [Capital] to speak for us here in [Podunk]."
There are two very relevant, core points in play in that simple scenario.

  • Our citizen knows Chuck, knows his character, and knows what he feels about issues.
  • Chuck knows the citizen, knows his needs, and knows what he feels about issues.

Even if Chuck didn't know everybody by name, it is likely that he could easily be approached by people in his district that had a concern that they wanted to bring up. It was also likely that if a given citizen didn't know Chuck directly, he likely had dealings with someone who did.

"Well, I haven't met ol' Chuck the blacksmith, but Ralph the baker says that he's a good man and knows what he's talking about."

There was no "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon" necessary to find someone who could give an adequate assessment of Chuck the blacksmith.

As the population grew, the number of people that a representative... uh... represented... grew as well. Where Chuck the blacksmith may have gone off to Washington to speak for a few hundred or a few thousand people... today's politicians represent hundreds of thousands of constituents. At that scale, it is logistically impossible for a representative to personally know all the members in his (or her) district. Likewise, it is impossible for this person to know what their wishes are or what is in their best interest. It is because of this that most Representatives hold more allegiance to their political party (and the inherent ideals) than to their constituents. That, however, is tinder for another post at a later time.

The other side of this equation is that it is impossible for the citizens to know the person they are selecting to speak for them on matters. They can't even ask Ralph the baker for his opinion since it is just as likely that Ralph has never met our modern-day Chuck. That puts our lowly citizen at a decided loss...

"Who is Chuck? What does he believe? Does he care about my issues?"
Added to this interesting mix is the fact that most people in America have very little, if any, idea about how [insert a seat of government here] works. Our educational system ejaculates students into the world that know that the Pilgrims landed on this continent but with little true understanding of why. They know that there is a document that begins "We the people..." but don't know what momentous occasion it heralded. They know that we have a Constitution - but very often mis-understand and mis-quote (typically with the blank-eyed rote repetition of the superficially knowledgeable) its contents. What that means is that a significant, almost overwhelming, portion of the populous doesn't actually understand what is being said (sold?) by those either already in positions of governmental power or by those who strive to be so.

All of the after-the-fact complexity that government has interwoven into their purported job descriptions only serves to obfuscate their real roles - and likewise their real stances on issues. Not many people are able to even notice when a politician's sound-byte contradicts a Constitutional principle. Most people wouldn't even notice when a politician's sound-byte on an issue contradicts that same politician's own stance from a day before. There's simply too much for most people to grasp. They have neither the tools nor the patience.

However, since the people are given at least the appearance of having a choice (shell games like gerrymandering aside), they like to believe that they are part of The Process. But whom to choose? Gone are the Ralph the Bakers that we can ask. I don't discount the influence of hearing the babble of friends, family and co-workers. Certainly, that plays a part - but is as reliable as the theoretical "wisdom of crowds". It definitely has a familial and even regional effect - very similar to the premise "we worship the Gods of our fathers." If you are born into or live in the midst of a predominant mindset, it is likely you will absorb some of its dogma.

No, people like to put their trust in an institution. Often, there is the comforting belief that "an organization knows better." Yes, this is a spin-off on the "wisdom of crowds" but with one additional trump card: credibility. People assume that something bigger than themselves (or their direct peers) must also know more than themselves. If the person trusts that entity - they become a de facto Ralph the Baker... albeit one with which they are almost as unfamiliar as the political figures they are seeking information on.

There are plenty of examples:

  • Newspapers report the news - they must know all the ins and outs of how The System works, right? Who better to turn to for information!
  • Religious organizations are ethical - they must know which candidates represent the important societal issues!
  • Labor unions stand for the "common man" - they must know which candidate is going to work for me and my family's best interests!
  • Political bodies (including parties) are already part of the The System - they must know who will support their very same issues.
  • [A special interest group] supports [cause] - they will obviously choose the candidate that will advance my pet issue (unspoken implication: "which is not only Constitutional valid but more important than any other governmental responsibility")!

There are a few problems with all of the above. First, those organizations don't truly exist as a thinking entity - they are a collection of individuals... each with their own agenda, their own perceptions, and their own conclusions. Certainly, in the case of some organizations, religious organizations for example, there may be a single figurehead that may, to some degree, speak for the group... and even set the course in general - but by and large, they are a group of people that project what is really an aggregate into some sort of homogeneous image. In the end, however, the lone voter avoids making a decision as to whether to trust the candidate by deciding whether or not to trust the group's wisdom and subsequent stance on that candidate. There has been an extra layer inserted into the process. To pervert the chain even further, there may have been other entities involvement into whether or not the proxy group, themselves, should be trusted in the first place. Yet again, another layer between the individual and the person they are allegedly making an informed choice about of their own free will.

What's worse is the de facto nomination of individuals as the surrogate thinker. These range from the mildly annoying such as talk show hosts to the completely inane such as a Hollywood or music-industry figure. It is one thing to subscribe to the candidate of a political talk-show host such as a Rush Limbaugh - his listeners know his stance on political issues to a great degree. Michael Moore is also someone who has made his views known on a variety of issues. You know what you are getting into with these people. However... what are Oprah's political views? She is a very visible talk-show host... but her topics are once removed from the arena of politics. Sure, we may know her beliefs on life issues - but how many of them map over onto political issues? How many of them should? So how relevant is her endorsement? And how transparent? And yet, when she announced her support for Barrack Obama - the media was sucked in to cover it so swiftly it was as if the cliff was crumbling towards the lemmings faster than the lemmings were running to the cliff. And because the media cared about Oprah, so did the people (note the 2 layers of proxy).

With the entertainment world figures, the association is even more flawed and bizarre. While we know something about Oprah's views, what do we really know about an actor or a musician? The actor was in a movie written by someone else, playing a role conceived by someone else... and yet we associate them with... what? Perhaps the musician wrote lyrics that moved us... or the author wrote fiction that inspired us - but those are likely as trustworthy as believing that Stephen King actually thinks there are children in the corn and nasty stuff happens when you walk out into the fog. But there are those that trust these people as their political proxies. [Some actor] believes that [candidate] is evil - therefore, so shall I. [Some musician] believes that [candidate] will [do nifty thing] - therefore, I will support said candidate.

Put that simply, it seems ludicrous. And yet it happens every election cycle. If it didn't, it wouldn't be newsworthy. (Of course, the claim can be made that much of what is covered by the media is not necessarily newsworthy.) And yet it parades on... Why? What does that say about the American public that we trust so many other sources of opinion above our own? What does it say that we pay more attention to the lives and personalities of the candidates on "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars" than we do to the people who, literally, control our every day lives? (The fact that people don't even grasp that last fact is actually rather startling as well.)

Does it say they don't understand? Possibly.

Does it say they don't want to take the time? Probably.

Does it say they don't care... ?

I don't know the answer to that - but I know it scares me to even consider it.

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