It’s All Just a Popularity Contest
When I was in the sixth grade, I ran for class representative. Each home room sent a representative to our student government. Being a nerdy, awkward kid back then (insert joke here), there wasn’t much of a chance of me winning, but I was passionate about politics and government so I ran anyway. My opponent was one of the most popular girls in the class. We each gave a two minute speech. After prepping hard, explaining my rationale for running, what I wanted to do and how we could get it accomplished, I sat down, looking forward to the vote.
I got destroyed. I think I got four votes out of thirty.
Afterwards, I remember thinking bitterly that this wasn’t a real campaign. If the class had voted on ideas, not just on popularity like they did “in real life,” I’d have won in a landslide. Real campaigns were about ideas, and who could do the best job, I thought. Not just popularity.
To make a long story short, I was a complete idiot.
A few years later, Bill Clinton was elected President. Fast forward to 2008, and a first term Senator with no real experience gets elected President after being attacked by his opponent for being the “biggest celebrity in the world.” Now, today, a reality TV star is poised to get the Republican nomination for President.
There’s a belief out there, one that’s fostered and fed by the mainstream media, by pundits, campaign consultants, pollsters and elected officials, that campaigns are won through hard work and ideas. That a carefully crafted message, boots on the ground, voter contact and an understanding of what voters want can win elections.That elections are noble, serious things in which we take a hard look at who we are as a people, where we are and where we want to go and do. That voters, especially at the national level, make good decisions based on rational ideas, guided by ideology – that, in effect, voters tend to get things right.
If all of that is true, it’s hard to understand why the Republican field is being led by a man who is not a conservative, but just got endorsed by the darling of the conservative movement. Your average Republican is railing against crony capitalism, but seems to be supporting a man who personifies crony capitalism and makes a habit of bragging about the politicians he’s bought. Evangelical voters are turning up their noses at an actual preacher, and are instead backing a guy who can’t cite scripture properly. Voters complaining about how this economy is leaving behind middle class and working class voters are poised to nominate for President a billionaire who knows nothing about the plight of the average American because he’s always been rich.
If voters are rational, and they make decisions based on things like policy, ideology, and electability, the current GOP frontrunner should be polling below Rick Santorum. He’s not. And the most experienced, thoughtful, accomplished and honest of the candidates is cracking less than 5% nationally. It does’t make a lot of sense – that is, unless you throw out all that nobility and seriousness nonsense.
Whatever elections may have been in the past, it’s time to acknowledge what we all really know is true – this election is just a popularity contest. And it’s one that won’t be decided by rational voters, it will be decided by people whose rationales for supporting their favorite candidate don’t seem to make a lot of sense.
The myth of the rational voter – someone who weighs the various candidates and their policy proposals, and then makes a rational decision over who will do the best job, whose beliefs are most similar to theirs, and who can provide the most benefit to that individual voter – is just that, a myth. That person does not exist, if they ever existed. It’s a shame, because that’s kind of what democracy needs to function effectively. Then again, almost nobody will say ours is functioning effectively right now anyway.
The number of voters who decide who to support based on some kind of objective criteria that can be discerned and exploited can probably be counted on one hand. They are they exception, not the rule.
Today, Americans are so cynical about government, so distrustful of politicians, so resigned to the fact that nothing they promise is really going happen, and that nobody can enact the sweeping change they demand – even if that actually is what they want, which is debatable – that they’ve essentially given up. Nobody truly expects anything to really change, so why not at least be entertained? It’s hard not to be cynical, honestly.
Presidential debates are boring. When the most exciting thing that happens is one of the guys sighs too much, you know that they’re boring. Presidential debates with Donald Trump are not boring, because you don’t know what he’s going to do or say. That’s why they’ve been breaking viewership records. Whether you like him or hate him, everyone can admit that he is entertaining.
And that’s why he’s winning, and why he very well may win the whole game. What we are witnessing is the final result of the Kim Kardashian effect – being famous for being famous – embracing American politics. It’s no longer sufficient for us to elect a former actor, we’re about to elect a current one.
It’s time folks just come out and be honest – we can say all we want that elections need to be about ideas, about choosing the best candidate, or about deciding between competing visions. This election is finally blowing all of that garbage away. It’s not about that, at least this time around.
The voters seem to have given up about being serious, so our candidates have done the same. This election, more so than many in our history, is just a popularity contest.
And the most popular guy is winning. God help us.