Political burnout

Over the past couple weeks, politics has come up twice in conversations with folks. This isn’t surprising with the Iowa caucus happening tomorrow and the primary process in full swing. But it is interesting that politics is starting to seep back into the national awareness and into my personal awareness.

I burnt myself out on politics in 2004. I wrote extensively about that election campaign on this blog, from the Dean campaign, to different candidate possibilities, to analyzing the framing of ads and debates. I even went to Ohio for the election itself to knock on doors and get the vote out. Afterwards, I felt I had done everything I possibly could – I had volunteered in the critical battleground state, I had spent several days helping out with the political machine, and all of my efforts had been for naught as Bush had still been elected.

I pretty much gave up on our political process at that point. I’ve only written a couple posts in my politics category since 2005, and the posts that I’ve done are more about meta-politics and thinking about ways to change the system rather than work within the system. I believe that our system of universal suffrage may be broken given that, as Mancur Olson put it, “The effort to inform ourselves and participate in the debate is much more costly to us individually than the benefit that would come to us individually from our efforts to reduce the distortion. Thus, it is rational for us to remain ignorant. At the same time, the narrow interests who reap the benefit of all of our individual contributions (through taxes, higher prices, or whatever the particular policy distortion produces) will always have high-powered incentives to organize and importune the government, ignoring the damages to broader society.” (see this post for earlier thoughts)

At the same time, Churchill’s quip of “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” is apropos. Democracy has been one of the great civilizing influences of the past few centuries and continues to be a beacon of hope around the world in developing countries. Giving the people of a country a way to “throw the bums out” in a peaceful fashion is critical to a country’s stability and prosperity. I just wish voters had better reasons for their vote than “I’m unhappy” or “I’m worried about my job”.

I do think that this primary season will be interesting for the first time in a while – the different candidates provide a wide variety of options, and none of the candidates are a slam dunk, so the electorate choice will tell us something about the criteria being used by the American electorate. On the Democratic side, Hillary seems the most competent but lacks the personal skills, Obama is inexperienced but positioned himself as the candidate of hope, and Edwards is the candidate of economic uneasiness with his “Two Americas” platform. On the Republican side, Giuliani has the experience of being “America’s Mayor” but lacks on the conservative platform, McCain is almost too principled to be palatable to the right-wing nuts, Romney has business experience but has been labelled a flip-flopper, Huckabee is appealing to the religious right but scares everybody else.

I’m still not quite ready to get back into paying attention to politics. I read the Economist, but I’m not going to go to DailyKos or any of the bazillion other political sites. Rather than trying to make the best possible informed choice that I can, I’m going to wing it like the vast majority of Americans because other things are more important to me. I’ll concentrate on “acting locally” by trying to improve the lives of those in my communities and leave the politics and the lobbying to others. It’s not very civic-minded of me, but I’ve got other stuff going on, and 2004 showed me that caring and investing the time doesn’t really make a difference. Maybe I should be more optimistic and more resilient, but I’d prefer to invest my time in areas where my efforts are more likely to matter.

2 thoughts on “Political burnout

  1. We had a discussion on Sunday night that really got my contrarian streak going, and my conclusion of the moment is that universal suffrage is actually a bad idea.

    What we should have instead is suffrage based on a combination of being affected by the decision and competence to make a good decision in that venue.

    How do you implement that and still ensure a reasonable minimum level of justice? I have no idea. But I think our big problem at the moment is that people don’t have the resources to make good decisions in a directly democratic way (and some people will never have those resources), and representative democracy doesn’t seem to mix well with mass media.

    I dunno, maybe we just need a parliament instead of a congress…

  2. I think if we truly had a representative democracy where we trusted our representatives to do the research and make the right decisions for us, then it’d be fine. But everybody just wants what’s best for them and don’t understand some of the compromises necessary, so they think their rep does a bad job and wants to overrule them.

    I once suggested on eit that attending a single city council meeting in the year prior should be a requirement for voting. I figured everybody has 24 hours in a day, so that was fair. If you can’t make time for an hour or two to attend a meeting, you clearly don’t have the time or initiative to stay educated on major issues. I was accused of wanting to institute a new poll tax.

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